At the Church of the High Lonesome

Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band at Headliners

By Tim Roberts

If it hadn't been for the hazy blanket of cigarette smoke hovering above the heads of the crowd, the low-roar conversation levels and the sporadic thumplink of a beer bottle landing in a heavy rubber garbage can, I'd have thought I was in church on the night of March 9, the Church of the High Lonesome Bluegrass with the Right Brothers Steve Earle and Del McCoury giving us the message, with McCoury's band leading us in song.

But it was only Steve Earle and the Del McCoury band performing at Headliner's Music Hall, on tour supporting their joint release The Mountain.

The whole performance had the feel of a revival meeting. Earle and the band took the stage promptly at 8:30, dressed in brown suits (Earle's was tan), and together they looked sharp enough to slice ham. They gathered around a single microphone in the traditional, old-timey Bluegrass style. As each man took a solo, he stepped up to the mic while the others moved back. The mic itself was a technical wonder. Shaped like an egg and with an incredible pickup, its sound was clean and clear.

Earle and the band performed a variety of selections from The Mountain, and included a few other surprises. Dan Gillis joined the band on pennywhistle on a crisp Irish tune called "Dixieland," one that Earle had written about a professional Irish soldier who left his country during the potato famine and later fought in the US Civil War. Their portion of the show finished with two selections, "Harlan Man" and "The Mountain," that, according to Earle, were a tribute to a way of life that's disappearing in eastern Kentucky as land is lost and miners are claimed by black lung disease.

Del "Any Song Can Be a Bluegrass Song" McCoury strode onto the stage as Earle left, and the show never missed a moment of its energy. There wasn't an inch of that entire concert hall that wasn't filled by McCoury's voice. While Earle's voice sounds like a wide gravel road, McCoury's is like a gleaming javelin that always hits its target. They performed some selections from their latest CD, The Family. McCoury even invited a sing-along for "Nashville Cats," but no one participated.

After more than a half-hour break, Earle returned to the stage for his solo set. Personal commitments prevented me from staying past his first two songs.

While the performances of Earle, McCoury, and the band were nothing short of marvelous, the behavior of the crowd interfered with the show's effect. There were no fights or loudmouthed hecklers, but there was a constant loud hum of conversation, as if the show were being held next to a fleet of semis with their engines running. Because many of Earle's songs tell stories, that hum becomes a barrier. Plus, Headliner's is a little more intimate that an arena, where such noise only becomes ambience. I remembered the same kind of audience behavior the last time Earle was in town: July, 1997 for a show at the Phoenix Hill Tavern. At that one, some lout full of Budweiser kept shouting for Earle to play something from "GEET-TAR TOUN'"

The point is that a lot of people in this town obviously like Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band. Their cars lined Lexington Road, in front of the Distillery Commons, (many of them were ticketed and towed because that's a no parking zone). So if you like him, go to his show, be quiet, and absorb his music. Otherwise, why spend 17 or 20 dollars to stand around, drink beer, and talk as if you can't hear yourself because of the noise from the TV?