Steve Earle, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

He's been there, written the song, wears the T-shirt

Steve Earle, reformed junkie and rejuvenated artist, is angry and paranoid. He is angry because his "constitutional right to be bummed out for as long as I fucking want" has been questioned all over the American tabloids, which, since the release of his album Jerusalem, have taken to labelling him "twisted" and "one of those people who hate America". And such is the extent of his paranoia that when he looked the word up and found that it meant "to be fearful of something that is not real" he even got paranoid about the dictionary definition. "I swear to God I'm being followed right now," he tells the crowd at the rammed-to-the-rafters Empire, who are indeed following his every utterance.

What, you may ask, can good ol' Texan country boy Steve Earle – purveyor of bar-room ballads, rocking road anthems and "chick songs" – have possibly done to earn such reprobation? Well, the self-confessed "loneliest man in America" (he really should try and hook up with Michael Moore) dared to imagine himself into the head of John Walker Lindh, the young American who was caught with the Taliban and sentenced to 20 years without due legal process.

That song, "John Walker's Blues", is one of the most astonishing pieces of music you will ever hear (or never hear, if you tune into US radio stations). And he plays it tonight with no introduction, no '"I wrote this song because..." frippery and no after-song feedback session. It speaks for itself: "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/ So I started lookin' around/ For a light out of the dim/ And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word of Mohammed/ Peace be upon him." Oh yeah, and the chorus is a recitation of Sura 47, Verse 19 of the Koran. Sung in Arabic. This ain't rock'n'roll. This is commercial suicide.

But Earle has never been one to play to the gallery. Back in the early 1990s, when Nashville had proclaimed him the saviour of country music, the "hardcore troubadour" was living on the streets, strung out on crack and heroin and listening to Dr Dre. Damned if he even owned a guitar.

His recovery changed his life. If he could kick drugs, he figured, then anyone could do anything. Hell, American kids could find Islam through hip-hop (as John Walker Lindh did, after growing up in a bohemian family with a father who came out as gay while his son was in his teens). Murderers could reform. Earle took to visiting death-row inmates; politicised, urgent, angry, patriotic in a sense his own country will never understand – a reborn redneck who had truly transcended.

Trouble is, Earle's enlightenment has left much of his early material sounding like Bryan Adams. He still plays old favourites such as "Copperhead Road", "Guitar Town" and "Galway Girl", but it's the new political songs – "America V6.0", Conspiracy Theory', "Jerusalem", "John Walker's Blues" and "Ashes to Ashes" (which contains the anti-Springsteen lyric: "Every tower ever built tumbles/ No matter how strong/ No matter how tall") – that provide all of tonight's standstill moments. Just maybe, like Bob Dylan in reverse, in years to come the protest songs and pretty numbers will sit comfortably side by side.

For now, though, Earle is just too fired up by this fresh-fuelled burning in his belly. And forget all about country singers putting tears in your beers. Tonight, Earle puts down one heckler with a scathing, "Man, I fucking hate alcohol." He ends the set with a romp through Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love & Understanding" but the slogan on his T-shirt puts it more succinctly: "Fuck the war!" Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs? All you can say to that is, don't mess with Texas.

Steve Earle and the Dukes: City Hall, Sheffield (01142 789789), tonight; Colston Hall, Bristol (0117 922 3686), Mon

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there