On Saturday, I drove in early enough to snag a parking spot a few hundred feet from the key entrance (now that I knew where it was!). No bridge crossing. Trout Fishing in America was playing on one stage, while the other was silent. I hadn’t seen them before, but they were just a little on the happy side for me. As I walked around to the other side, I saw a big man laying on top of a stack of equipment cases, twenty feet up backstage. It turned out to be Chris Chew of The North Mississippi Allstars.

I’d wanted to see them since an acquaintance, Daniel Gold of An Honest Tune magazine, had raved. Daniel rescued a guitar of theirs, when someone attempted to steal it in Fayetteville after a gig. Even though I’m not into the jam thing, Daniel has pointed me at some interesting bands as they’ve passed through town. I was near the front of the stage when they came out, and after a few songs I was glad I was. They had great energy, as they melted a bunch of classic blues tunes together. I looked around and saw some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, Stephen Koch of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and my old friend Dan Limke who works for some newspaper consortium a bit further north. Then, a skinhead near the center just started pointing and madly gesturing at me like he knew me. Everyone thinks they know me. The band was playing great, until halfway through the set when the jamming became intolerable. I left to get a beer.

When I returned, the band had returned to playing songs. Overall, they were good. I just feel so damn cheated when people start noodling about on the stage. I think it was the drum solo that did it. Didn’t these people learn anything from the sixties? Drum solos don’t work. I left before the encore, to try to get a good position for the man I really went to see.

Steve Earle was a total pro. It was an acoustic show, and the monitor set-up was so bad I could hear the onstage feedback at the front row. He stopped once, to see if they could fix it. They didn’t. He played a few Bob Dylan tunes, and eventually commented “I’d be happy if they could just get the feedback in tune.” Earle explained that he started out as a folk singer, but he had to give it up because there were too many rules. He told stories about hopping trains as a kid, with a funny twist. He said he accidentally jumped on one that took him out of town and he had to call his dad to come and get him.

Later in the set, he played a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune, and told a story that Townes Van Zant had told him. It seems that Hopkins used his mouth like a bank. Any time he had extra money, he would put more gold in his mouth. He decided he wanted to get a diamond inset, but was so nervous that someone would steal it while he was sleeping that he had it placed on the inside. He carried a little dental mirror, so he could inspect it from time to time.

You could tell that Earle couldn’t hear a thing on stage. But he played amazingly well, for having no monitors. He just soldiered on, through a masterful set of tunes. As Tom Waits has said, “Steve Earle writes about American regret as clearly as anybody going.” I haven’t been moved to tears at a concert in a very long time, but this time I was. There’s just something about “Transcendental Blues”:

In the darkest hour of the longest night
If it was in my power I’d step into the light
Candles on the altar, penny in your shoe
Walk upon the water — transcendental blues

Happy ever after ’til the day you die
Careful what you ask for, you don’t know ’til you try
Hands are in your pockets, starin’ at your shoes
Wishin’ you could stop it — transcendental blues

If I had it my way, everything would change
Out here on this highway the rules are still the same
Back roads never carry you where you want ’em to
They leave you standin’ there with them ol’ transcendental blues

I was overcome as I scanned the crowd, thinking about how so many of these songs obviously touched people. Inside each and every face in the crowd is a universe all its own, with its own thoughts and perceptions which are largely incommunicable to anyone else.

In the encore, Earle played a brand new song written for an album coming out in the fall. It’s called “Jerusalem” and he joked that it might get him deported. It’s obviously political, and unabashed in its claim that “the sons of Abraham must lay down their sword.” Just another one of those folk-singer peace anthems, but gorgeous nonetheless. I wonder when calling for peace became anti-Semitic?

I wondered for a moment at the end of the first encore if there would be a second. I suspected not, so I headed for my car. I feel reasonably confident there wasn’t because Earle was about two steps ahead of me, headed for his bus. I didn’t bother him. As I walked out to the parking lot, I could hear a girl talking:

“I just don’t get this bit about never being satisfied,” she said. “Is it just an artist thing or what?”

I paused for a second, unable to keep my mouth closed. I said:

“If you’re ever satisfied, it usually means that your standards are too low.”

The guy she was with laughed. She looked at him and said:

“He might be right about that.”