If Steve Earle feels a bit deflated these days, it would be understandable: Last year’s “The Revolution Starts Now” (E-Squared/Artemis) was a shot across the bow of the Bush re-election campaign, and less than three weeks ago, the president once again stood on the steps of the Capitol, taking the oath of office.
And an undeniable sense of weariness hung over Earle’s concert at the Henry Fonda Musicbox Theater Friday night. This version of the Dukes, which has in the past been a potent, explosive unit, now strikes a reflective tone, their energy turned inward. On the album, “F the FCC” seethes with anger, ready to storm the barricades; live, it’s titular obscenity comes off as a frustrated outburst of resignation.
The guitars on their cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution” are arranged like the frenzied single, but it’s played closer to the shuffle tempo of the version on “The White Album.” With Will Rigby’s drumming hitting just behind the beat, the music feel likes it’s carrying additional weight (which is ironic, given that Earle has lost some 40 pounds and looks healthier than he has in ages).
They add a hard-bitten self-knowledge to “The Gringo’s Tale” and a depth of emotion to the cautious country soul of “I Thought You Should Know.” And it’s hard to miss the meaning of their magisterial “Isn’t It a Pity,” which features a soaring vocal turn by opening act Allison Moorer.
What hasn’t changed is the emotional terrain Earle covers: spare and compassionate narratives of the disenfranchised and marginalized. Young men join the Army and end up in Iraq because they “had no place to go.” They’re songs that dovetail with his grassroots sense of politics: He takes the stage to Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”; “The Revolution Starts Now” (which like the album, bookends the live show) doesn’t demand marches or grand gestures, it “starts in your own backyard.” He may not feel up to leading a movement, but there’s no doubting Earle’s passion and commitment.