Songs About the Common People,
Performed in an Uncommon Setting
City Winery, a new restaurant and nightclub on Varick Street in the South Village, presented Steve Earle and Allison Moorer for the first of its “Pairings” concerts on Thursday night.
Let’s break that down. Most of us would agree that this is an exquisitely strange time, anywhere, for the opening of a club and restaurant with wine-making facilities on the premises, where annual membership will cost $5,000, and a barrel of your own custom blend somewhere around $2,000. (Although you can buy a ticket for an individual concert without a membership, and order a Riesling and a sampler of cheese from Murray’s. Or just a glass of water; there’s no minimum.)
It’s strange that the restaurant — unlike comparable operations in Napa Valley — is located far from a major wine-making region; when you create your own wine here, you’re only halfway buying local. And it’s strange (but kind of funny) that what most people call a double bill — two artists whose work has something in common — City Winery calls “Pairings.”
But it was strangest of all that Steve Earle — a self-defined socialist and generally a songwriter and performer who doesn’t waste a sticky situation — did not comment on the dissonance of the evening. Here were songs, after all, about people whose lives are measured in miles per gallon, dollars per kilo, bullets per murder, and they were being played in a blond wood cabaret that seems built on the air jets of Wall Street status.
The earth did not stop turning. Mr. Earle played a good, long and fidgety solo acoustic set of songs going back 25 years, with spoken asides about Barack Obama (he felt good about casting a Tennessee vote for a black man, and trusts that the next president will listen to protest); the historian Stephen Ambrose (whose work enlightened Mr. Earle about the Americans’ war on the Sioux, and led him to a firmer position against manifest destiny); and the death penalty (he wondered if the United States, if it didn’t have a history of killing the imprisoned, would have invaded Iraq without proper cause).
Left leg pumping, teeth bared behind his beard, Mr. Earle sang his songs as if he were crushing them. He warped rhyming lines into guttural incantations of canine rrrrs and nasal aaaas, picked his guitar with hammer blows of the finger and thumb, and sang with a harmonica jammed up against his lips. In “The Devil’s Right Hand,” about gun violence running in the family, the sibilance of the words “pistol” and “holster” forced wheezes out of the instrument.
Toward the end of his set Mr. Earle sang a few duets with Ms. Moorer, his wife, who had opened the evening with a 40-minute set of amiable songs and stories. (Maybe she was the canary in the coal mine: she went so far as to offer the thought that “Obama has a vision that includes all of us and not just our rich friends.” The line drew a muted response.)
But until Mr. Earle got to a New York song, “Down Here Below” — starting with an image of the red-tailed hawk Pale Male smugly looking down over Fifth Avenue — his stories about Kentucky, or Tennessee, or Copperhead Road, or Taneytown, or Guitar Town, felt very, very far away.