Steve Earle is in love. The maverick country-rocker and political activist is touring behind his Grammy-winning 12th album, "Washington Square Serenade," a valentine to his adopted hometown of New York and to his wife, Allison Moorer. On Friday at the Somerville Theatre he sang the missus' praises on "Sparkle and Shine," the prettiest love song to come around in ages. And then there she was, his long-legged, golden-throated redhead standing beside her own scruffy troubadour, and the happy pair proclaimed in winsome harmony that "Days Aren't Long Enough."
Marital bliss isn't typical Steve Earle territory. Moorer is his seventh wife. Relationship songs have tended to run along the lines of "Goodbye," the sorriest sort of knee-slapper, which he performed to plaintive perfection. Mostly, it's cocaine blues, death-penalty ballads, and titles like "F the CC" and "The Rich Man's War" that we've come to expect from the outspoken, hard-living musician. But matters of the heart and issues of the day collided, with great force, during Earle's two-hour concert.
A sonic pileup was featured as well, courtesy of DJ Duke, who crashed the back porch with an arsenal of heavy beats and manned the turntables sporadically during the show's second half. Fans who already know the new album, produced by Dust Brother John King, were less startled by the provocative (and occasionally jarring) ambient foil to the songwriter's rootsy narratives.
Earle's musicianship is as blunt and pointed as his personality. He takes a few good chords, as many sturdy ideas, and makes song after humane, articulate, full-blooded song. After starting with "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," a tribute to the late Cambridge folk hero Eric von Schmidt, Earle alternated between measured ballads ("My Old Friend the Blues," "Billy Austin") and chugging folk-rockers ("Devil's Right Hand," "Copperhead Road"). He (and the DJ) leavened the earthy anthems with left-field fusions: a banjo-and-beats mash-up on "Oxycontin Blues," an otherworldy, scratch-driven transmission of "Satellite Radio," and a haunted read of Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole," which Earle recorded as the title theme to this season of "The Wire." It featured the night's most piquant combo: rustic steel guitar and sickly samples.
Earle largely bit his tongue between songs, except to remind people that music helped stop the Vietnam War (before dedicating "Steve's Hammer" to Pete Seeger) and offering a radical interpretation of immigration policy as an introduction to his chiming inclusiveness anthem, "City of Immigrants."
And why not let the music speak for itself when your catalog includes such tuneful, galvanizing screeds as "Jerusalem"? "I'm gonna keep singing this song until it comes true," said Earle, who's never given us reason to doubt him.
Moorer is a warm and wonderfully unfussy country-folk singer and songwriter who covers a vast swath of styles on "Mockingbird," her new album of songs penned by female singer-songwriters. Moorer's opening set included a raw, riveting cover of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot," and in light of her life story - as teens Moorer and sister Shelby Lynne lost both parents in a murder-suicide - her renditions of Jessi Colter's "I'm Looking For Blue Eyes" and Julie Miller's "Orphan Train" were elevated from simply beautiful to impossibly poignant.