Transcendental homesick blues

Steve Earle | Ulster Hall, Belfast
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In days gone by, the Ulster Hall was famed for Unionist-centric political rallies; tonight it was treated to a polemic of a different kind. Near the end of his set Earle, a Texan who passionately opposes the death penalty, introduced the harrowing "Over Yonder" (about his own experiences watching an execution at the prisoner's request). As he did so, he called for financial boycott and charges of human rights violations against his native land.

In days gone by, the Ulster Hall was famed for Unionist-centric political rallies; tonight it was treated to a polemic of a different kind. Near the end of his set Earle, a Texan who passionately opposes the death penalty, introduced the harrowing "Over Yonder" (about his own experiences watching an execution at the prisoner's request). As he did so, he called for financial boycott and charges of human rights violations against his native land.

"Right that's it," said one wag in the audience. "I'm going to refuse to buy anymore cocaine from America." Had he been in earshot Earle, whose political activism and past addictions have brought him into conflict with the Texas police (and prison system), would have appreciated the grim humour.

Grinding into a hard-faced, steam-hammered fusilade of caustic guitar and twanging, anguished vocals, Earle began the show with a selection from the current Transcendental Blues album. The impressive force and veiled menace may be perfect for attacking a cold, hard world and exorcising the post crack-addiction demons, but with the hall filled mostly by appreciative but sedate thirty- and fortysomethings, the essential audience feedback is not forthcoming.

Even so, with so many good songs in his canon and the particularly high standard of his work since the 1995 comeback Train A Coming, it was only a matter of time until he broke through the mire. The Civil War lament "Taneytown", the pop flash of "Last of the Hardcore Troubadours" and particularly "Someday" - a scalding indictment of small-town anomie and frustration, seething with montony and claustrophobia - all delivered.

More musical flavour emerged as the show progressed. McCoury nurtured instrumental virtuosity was to the fore on his electric mandolin intro to "Copperhead Road", while "Galway Girl" teemed with the high-spirited punk-folk of The Pogues. But it was when he dispensensed with the standard set list and hit the home straight of the long (two-and-a-half hour) show that political activism and musical might locked together on a truly corusucating version of the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today". A case of rebel victory seized from the jaws of the death penalty.

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