Sound and fury

Steve Earle is back with his powerful protest songs - and he's angrier than ever

Steve Earle Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12

It's not often you hear the Arabic words of the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith, on a London rock stage. But as Steve Earle said halfway through his set at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tuesday: 'It's been a weird year and it's getting weirder.'

The chorus of Earle's 'John Walker Blues', ' Ashadu la ilaha ilaah Allah/ There is no God but God,' rang out through the night like the cry of a wounded dog: a spine-chilling moment in a dark and angry night of protest. The song is dedicated to John Walker Lindh, the American Muslim convert who was discovered fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a week when the clash of civilisations continued its deadly progress through Iraq, the effect of hearing the holy words of the Muslim people set to a simple blues - that most American of musical forms - was electrifying and subversive.

When the pop-country act, the Dixie Chicks, announced that they were ashamed of President Bush from the same stage last month, swivel-eyed Texan 'patriots' burned piles of their CDs in protest. Steve Earle's fellow countrymen know better than to expect loyalty to the Bush administration from this veteran. His protest against the conflict in Iraq was more forthright than the Dixie Chicks - the giant words 'Fuck the War' on his T-shirt made his position clear.

There are few people making music at the moment who have such an intense understanding of the darkness of our times. The events which inspired last year's album Jerusalem (11 September, the war on terror, the Bush administration's dismantling of constitutional rights, the horror of the US penal system) continue to fill Earle with anger, but the Iraq war seems to have given him a renewed fury.

The music on Jerusalem is a long way from Earle's country roots. On most of the songs the melodies are minimal and at times this makes it difficult and grating listening. But this degree zero rock'n'roll makes far more sense live than on a studio album.

Last Tuesday Earle began by ripping through a cluster of songs from Jerusalem without a pause for breath. 'Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)', an attack on the complacency of middle-aged radicals in the face of corporate America, was a tight and angry opener followed by 'What's a Simple Man to Do' (a grim celebration of Mexican migrants to the US), the apocalyptic vision, 'Ashes to Ashes' and the paranoid fantasy 'Conspiracy Theory'. Ten minutes in and the bleak tone of the evening was set.

Earle himself is a vast presence. He has bulked up significantly even since last year's performances in Britain and between songs he strode around like some kind of timeless rock'n'roll pachyderm, a colossus of protest song. It's as if he's been doing this forever. Earle claims a place in the lineage that goes back through the late Joe Strummer (to whom he dedicated his London shows) as far as Woody Guthrie and the politically committed folk-blues tradition.

With 'John Walker's Blues' he can fairly claim to have written a truly great contemporary protest song, with the polemic of the words matched by the anger of the music. In this version of the story, which has already become a modern myth, John Walker Lindh is a classic alienated American rebel 'I'm just an American boy, raised on MTV/And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/ But none of them looked like me.'

Equally impressive was 'Jerusalem', the album's title track, where Earle allows a little country-and-western sentimentality to sneak back into his songwriting. But surely this is the first country-blues song to be written about war in the Middle East. 'I woke up this morning and none of the news was good/Death machines were rumblin' 'cross the ground where Jesus stood.' For me it was the high-point of the evening, the heartbreaking theme-tune to the war of aggression in Iraq.

Steve Earle is a brave artist in these 'weird times'. Not least because he's unafraid to show some political commitment. It can't be easy living in Tennessee when you think like Steve Earle. He played for an exhausting two-and-a-half hours before winding up with an second encore consisting of two unashamedly peacenik songs. The first was a version of The Youngbloods' 'Get Together', an obscure psychedelic one-hit wonder written by Dino Valenti about people smiling at their brother and loving one another. Why not, I say.

And the evening ended with a Steve Earle favourite, a cover version of the Nick Lowe classic 'What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love And Understanding.' What indeed?


Martin Bright

The GuardianTramp

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