Singer-songwriter Steve Earle offered up all sides of himself Wednesday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, illuminating the best and worst of humanity in a two-hour show so authentically gritty at times he seemed to actually kick up dust while stamping his feet in time with his songs.
The veteran Texas-bred musician, activist and writer inhabited the many roles he’s played over the years: hard-luck troubadour, sadder-wiser substance abuser, chagrined suitor, angry humanitarian, guilt-ridden father, renewed romantic. Alternately confessor and storyteller, he sang a lot of songs and talked a little politics, touching on everything from the state of the union to the plight of immigrants and organized labor.
Earle mostly just accompanied himself on acoustic and steel guitars, banjo, mandolin and harmonica, but was joined later in the set by opening act Allison Moorer, his wife. Her 35-minute performance was a lovely complement, as she also stood on the stage with just an acoustic guitar and drew mostly on her recent album, “Mockingbird,” featuring versions of tunes by favorite female songwriters.
She opened with the title track, her own composition, a bluesy folk ballad that showcased her beautiful voice and incredible control. Moorer radiated serenity and poise, yet fearlessly delved into the intense emotions of such diverse selections as Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” Jessi Colter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” and even Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” a song that arguably never needs to be sung by anyone else, ever.
“I work real hard at not being a cynic,” Moorer said lightly, before closing her set with a truly moving take on Sam Cooke’s 1964 R&B; ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come,” evoking the historic civil-rights movement while underscoring her own observation that America needs some real change, and hope, right now.
Just before Moorer returned for Earle’s set, he introduced her with the sweetly infatuated “Sparkle and Shine,” from his 2007 album “Washington Square Serenade.” The couple embraced adorably before duetting on such numbers as the love song “Days Aren’t Long Enough,” also from that collection, a New York City-centric work that reflects their recent relocation to Greenwich Village.
Earle also brought out DJ Neil McDonald for other new tracks, including “Down Here Below,” a talk-sung tune that contrasted the freewheeling life of New York City’s celebrity red-tailed hawk Pale Male with the struggles of “us mortals” on the streets beneath the bird’s flight paths.
But Earle’s set ranged all around his 21-year-deep catalog. He offered the melancholy-yet-comforting “My Old Friend the Blues” (from his 1986 debut, “Guitar Town”), the anti-death-penalty ballad “Billy Austin” (from 1990’s “The Hard Way”), the regretful breakup tune “Goodbye” (from 1995’s “Train a Comin’ ”), and his cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” used as the opening theme for the fifth and final season of HBO’s series “The Wire” (in which Earle appeared as a recovering heroin addict).
He paid tribute to folk hero Pete Seeger with “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete),” and to his sons and his recently deceased father with the road-weary lullaby “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller.”
His set might have run a little long, but the evening’s warts-and-all humanity provided a potent tonic in this world so obsessed with celebrity trivia and polarized debates that so often obscure the real issues. We need guys like Earle to remind us, with adept wit as well as compassion, that we’re all in the same boat.