After a particularly limp round of audience participation in his song "Christmas in Washington," Steve Earle scolded the crowd. "You're never gonna start a revolution like that . . . You're never gonna win an election like that." The crowd whooped, properly rebuked, and by the next chorus it was ready. "Come back Woody Guthrie," it crooned fervidly, "Come back to us now . . ." Earle seemed satisfied: "Now you're singin' like revolutionaries."
Summoning the spirit of Woody Guthrie, as Earle did at Avalon on Tuesday night, is risky business: It might be an act of humility or of hubris. Earle, at any rate, has earned the right to do it -- in his long career in country music and in his drug- and jail-bedeviled personal life he has paid his dues, and his new album "The Revolution Starts . . . Now" is his most outspoken yet. As the lights went down before his set, Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" came through the speakers. Earle, 49 years old and a stern, ashen presence at the mike, is a protest singer, and he wants you to know it.
There are contradictions here. This self-styled "radical [expletive]" is conducting his polemics against globalization, President Bush, and the Iraq war in one of the most conservative of American musical forms: Country rock, after all, was practically the soundtrack to this year's Republican National Convention. The Earle live experience is not the sonic purge of, say, a Fugazi show. But he knows what he's doing -- his lyrics are direct without losing subtlety, and the thick, chiming sound he has developed with guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel has an urgent, Clash-like effectiveness.
Midset, the energy ebbed a little; the new ballad "I Thought You Should Know," with its soggy, country-by-numbers chorus about a "little black dress," settled fairly heavily. And the appalling "Condi, Condi," an ironic salute to the erotic properties of our current national security adviser, should be dropped from the set forthwith. (If the joke, coarse enough to begin with, has no racist component, then why is the number performed as reggae?) But a furious "F the CC" -- the lyrical slant of which can probably be guessed -- restored the balance.
Opener Alison Moorer, who took the stage accompanied only by guitarist Adam Landry, shook the crowd. Her full-bodied voice combined intriguingly with the knots and ripples of Landry's post-Neil Young playing, and her presence was undeniable. Hard to believe, however, that a woman with this much red-headed starpower would have to beg the bartender -- as one of her songs has it -- for "One on the House."