Pop: Too much of a good thing

STEVE EARLE AND THE DEL McCOURY BAND RFH / SHEPHERD'S BUSH EMPIRE, LONDON

"NICE PLACE, but I'm more of a Shepherd's Bush guy," rasped Earle mid-set, acknowledging that an orchestral hall is not the kind of joint he usually plays, and looking forward to his final gig last Tuesday night. But the setting wasn't the only culture clash of the night.

The avowed bluegrass traditionalist Del McCoury is an unlikely partner for the songwriter who looked set to take over Nashville with his 1986 debut "Guitar Town", but then chose to up the volume, rock out and indulge a heroin habit that landed him in jail in the early Nineties. McCoury, meanwhile, sings the occasional gospel number, his band play in suits and he offers few hints of having ventured out of the hills since bluegrass was invented in the late Thirties. However, this year they came together for The Mountain, an album of original Earle songs in a bluegrass style that won unanimous approval.

Out of respect for McCoury's ways Earle, whose sartorial high point to date has been a clean T-shirt, strides on in a suit. Forming a tight circle, he and the band employ the old bluegrass method of using a single microphone, with Earle backing away each time there's a vocal break to allow the lead instrument of banjo, mandolin or fiddle to the fore. The dexterity with which they harmonised and moved around within their circle was fascinating but it was clear, even after the first two numbers, "Texas Eagle" and "Yours Forever Blue", that the dominant forces were Earle's "been there" vocals and the subject matter of corporate America's cultural imperialism and love's downs and downs, neither of them the usual bluegrass territory.

After 10 numbers Earle introduced the McCoury Band's segment with "if you've never heard bluegrass played before this is the standard you measure it by". Obviously many people hadn't and if McCoury had nailed, say, six songs, the crowd might have been converted. Loud cries beckoning Earle back on stage started to ring out half-way through and when the avuncular Del said that they'd play one more song before an interval he signalled a race to the bars. Earle's solo acoustic turn lifted interest but, contrary as always, he showcased mostly forthcoming material rather than belting out "Guitar Town".

When the McCoury Band returned, the fizz had gone, and when at one point Earle told the crowd that his next record is going to be "a loud one", he just about managed the biggest cheer of the evening.

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