Haloed in a near-constant magenta glow, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle gave the Salmon Arms Roots and Blues Festival the hottest opening night of its 24 year history. Upwards of eight thousand fans came to enjoy the inspired pairing of two old musical friends, who played an exciting set of cowrites from their recent Colvin & Earle record, along with older solo songs, and even older cover tunes. Touring together as a stripped down acoustic duo makes economic sense for both of these triple Grammy-winners, but it is even more gratifying artistically because of the contrasting gifts each brings to the stages they have are been sharing across North America this summer.
At first, opening with the Everly Brothers 1957 hit "Wake Up Little Susie" seems an odd way to kick things off. But as an example of their soon-to-be-trademark 'close-singing', it can't be beat-- and it is the doubling-up of their vocal lines that gives the recent Colvin & Earle record, so much of its strength. This is no Tammy Wynette/George Jones duet coupling, as you might expect; Colvin and Earle present their vocal lines in unison, singing a single strong sound, in much the same way as Emmylou Harris and the late Gram Parsons, Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills & Nash-- and especially The Everlys did when they merged their voices together.
"Come What May" follows-- the poppy powerhouse opener from their album-- where Colvin & Earle shoot from the starting blocks, with as positive a message as either has expressed in years. "No matter what you do, no matter what you say, I'll come back to you, come what may, come what may...." That dovetails nicely into another example of their unified singing on Ian & Sylvia's 1965 hit "You Were On My Mind". Sylvia Tyson wrote the lovelorn classic in New York City's Earle Hotel, a mere stone's throw from where Earle himself lives these days. Other covers follow, including "Ruby Tuesday" from Earle's favorite early Stones compilation-- "Flowers"-- an almost all acoustic affair, where the Texan copped a lot of his pre-"Guitartown" chops.
When it comes to passion and honesty, Earle writes the songs that seemingly no one else will. Whether he's firing broadsides at oppressive governments or skewering corporate criminals, Earle has few true topical song peers, except perhaps for Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. Could anyone else pull off as an instant a classic as "Thinkin' Bout Burnin' The Walmart Down". Or would anyone else but Earle be forgiven so easily at a family festival such as this, for telling a loudmouthed lout to "Fuck off!", for requesting "Copperhead Road" so early in the evening's proceedings?
At age 60, Colvin may seem like the one who is gaining the most from this union; her original songwriting output pales against the powerful Earle juggernaut. Seemingly unstoppable, the man known to some as the 'hardcore troubadour' keeps stomping from strength-to-strength with each new volume of original songs. Colvin's last CD of self-penned material was in 2006, her 2012 set "All Fall Down" was primarily co-writes and last year's "Uncovered" was a choice collection of cover tunes. In the same time period, 61-year old Earle has had four CDs of original material as well as his own covers set of Townes Van Zant songs.
Colvin has written a couple of songs as great as almost anything from Earle's numerous best. "Sunny Came Home"-- which earned Colvin the Best Song Grammy in 1998-- is as troubling and cautionary a tale as Earle's "Devil's Right Hand"-- maybe even more so-- because the violence in which the song's character "makes a few small repairs"-- is never truly explained. Colvin's sparse reading is more mournful than her older, angrier arrangement-- and all the more powerful for that. Earle quietly backs her up with no need for comment of his own; he knows a powerful song when he hears one.
Earle may have needed the break from his own gruelling pace by knocking off some songs with a sparring partner as strong as Colvin can be, but there was evidence during the concert that he is paying her back for helping him back in 1990s, when she covered his early classic "Someday". At the time, Earle had lost his recording contract, was homeless and fighting an addiction to crack cocaine. Earle came to tears, telling the story of how Colvin recorded the song on 1994's "Cover Girl", her first covers collection. Colvin's largesse saved Earle's career and may well have even saved his life.
One of the night's highest peaks-- and as true a sing-along as either has ever had-- is their modern-day spiritual "Tell Moses"; in the song Colvin & Earle draw parallels between Moses, Martin Luther King and Michael Brown, the young black man killed by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. The Roots & Blues crowd digs in deep-- adding some serious 'close-singing' of its own. The crowd's unison singing and subsequent cheering was almost as loud as the response the performers got as they encored with Colvin's "Diamond In The Rough" and Earle's hillbilly hit "Copperhead Road".
After a string of successful summer shows, no doubt Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle know how strong their union is-- and how ripe a reunion could be. Judging from the audience response in Salmon Arm, the Roots & Blues Festival would welcome this dream team back, as Colvin & Earle themselves say, we'll come back to you, what may, come what may.
1. Wake Up Little Susie
2. Come What May
3. You Were On My Mind
4. Raise The Dead
5. Ruby Tuesday
6. That Don't Worry Me Now
8. The Way That We Do
9. You're Right (I'm Wrong)
10. Burnin' The Walmart Down
11. Sunny Came Home
12. Galway Girl
13. Happy And Free
14. Tell Moses
15. You're still Gone
16. Diamond In The Rough
17. Copperhead Road