Steve EarleParish, March 15
Steve Earle plays a solipsistic populist. It's captured in the songwriter's eyes as he becomes absorbed in his own guitar strums onstage, lilting side to side, until they flash open behind his glasses with a piercing, joyful glint upon the crowd, grinning as he rallies to lead a chorus. Likewise, his tunes can ring hauntingly personal and defiantly political, a restless, battered truth pervading in his weary smile as his SXSW set shifted from "City of Immigrants" to "My Old Friend the Blues" and a searing "Someday" from his 1986 debut, Guitar Town. "This was the first song I wrote sober, which means it's 18-and-a-half years old. I know that for a fact," the survivor offered in introduction to a devastating "Goodbye," before breaking out a mandolin for "The Galway Girl." Requests piled up from the audience, but only a mocking "Free Bird" elicited response as Earle turned to flip off the offender and laugh, "There's your free bird." Still, no one left dissatisfied, as the Texas-reared troubadour closed with a raucous "Copperhead Road." Earle proves not only the vitality of a second life, but also a sincere strength to embrace what came before.