Steve Earle wore a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a Western shirt. But he’s not a country singer. Never has been, despite a career launched in Nashville.
He’s an Americana artist – one of various roots-rock flavors – as he manifested Sunday night in a rewarding concert at the Minnesota Zoo.
There were helpings of Texas music (his home state), New Orleans music (he had a role on the HBO show “Treme”), folk music (he lives in New York’s Greenwich Village) and Irish-tinged bluegrass/folk music (maybe he’ll explain the connection sometime).
This performance had more energy than his more recent folk-flavored Twin Cities concerts and, for a change, there were no political speeches from the usually outspoken Earle, though he made some quips about Wal-Mart, vegetarians and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wanting to use drones.
The 115-minute set was heavy on material from last year’s “The Low Highway.” Early on, the music seemed more spirited than Earle’s vocals, especially on the Green Day-evoking “21st Century Blues” and the snarling, rock strut “Calico County.” His delivery seemed dry and often not assertive.
Then on the ballad “I Thought You Should Know” – which he explained he’d been singing lately because he’s single again after his seventh marriage (to singer Allison Moorer) ended this winter – he summoned an impassioned soulfulness.
Earle perked up on the “Treme” tune “That All You Got” and “This City,” which sounded like a Springsteenian ode to New Orleans. But the performance really turned around on “Guitar Town,” the twangy title track of his terrific 1986 debut, and the Irish-tinged favorite “Copperhead Road,” always a winner live. The hoedown/boogie vibe continued on a medley of selections starting with “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” and ending with “Galway Girl” and “Down the Road.”
The self-deprecating 59-year-old talked about how on his 15th album, “The Low Highway,” he finally got around to playing piano on record for the first time. He explained that hanging out so much in New Orleans made him believe he could play piano live. So he did it Sunday on “Pocket Full of Rain” and, despite his Dr. John voice and Leon Russell beard, Earle will never be mistaken for either – or even a piano player.
More successful were the encores. The first one featured the one-two knockout punch of the country duet “I’m Still in Love with You” with fiddler Eleanor Whitmore and the Band’s “Rag Mama Rag,” (Earle has a home in Woodstock, where the Band lived). which proved Earle can be an assertive vocalist when he so chooses. That notion continued with a second encore of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and Earle’s own restless country-rocker “The Revolution Starts Now.”
Even though Earle has played the zoo’s Weesner Family Amphitheater a few times before, he seemed happy to be headlining there. “This feels like First Avenue without the rats,” he joked. “I’m sure some vegetarians have played here and swallowed more bugs than I did and called it a relapse.”