Steve Earle took to the Austin Ventures stage Saturday evening — all denim, beard and hat — to challenge the reverb-heavy sounds of Bassnectar on the stage next door. It felt familiar, kind of like an ACL 2011 scheduling misstep that had an acoustic Gillian Welch playing at the same time as (and on the stage nearest) Skrillex.
But Steve Earle ain’t scared of some bass. And with the help of his full band and rebel ways, Earle played a country/bluegrass-laden set against the background of previously-pouring skies that let up just in time to welcome this songwriting legend back to the Texas stage.
There were nods to Earle’s early roots. “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road” were played back-to-back for a crowd that fell into the nostalgia of the first and the rebel rousing of the latter.
As an overcast afternoon turned to grey Texas dusk, Earle spent an hour trading mandolin for banjo for acoustic guitar, running through a snapshot of his career that balanced a modern catalog with the signature sounds that made him a songwriting force in Tennessee, Texas and beyond.
He opened with “Waitin’ on the Sky” (from 2011’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive): a sentiment that was surely shared among Saturday's crowd of muddy, drenched festival goers.
After a short hiccup between songs one and two — “This shit’s tore up,” Earle matter-of-factly told the crowd — he launched into “Little Emperor,” a tune that the troubador dedicated to “W and his fuckin’ horse.”
With that, the Van Zandt/Clark protege planted leftist political roots that would remain a subtle theme of his ACL show, one that was met with nothing but cheers from a crowd that lightly grasped onto each political undertone.
From “Little Emperor,” Earle and his band rolled into 1995's “Train A Comin'" issuing in the rowdiness that Steve Earle is known for, with enough speed and depth to drown the droning bass from next door’s electronic show. Of course, there were the obligatory nods to Earle’s early roots. “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road” were played back-to-back for a crowd that fell into the nostalgia of the first and the rebel rousing of the latter.
As the end of the set grew nigh and bodies started traversing the park to reach Neil Young, Earle took a few moments to "set the record straight" on “three lies you’ll be told this election cycle.”
For Earle, it all boils down to one simple truth: trade unions, teachers and immigration don't "have anything to do with the trouble in this country." To drive it home, Earle segued into 2007’s “City of Immigrants,” from Washington Square Serenade.
It was a fitting tribute to Steve Earle’s troubadour past, and to an ACL spotlight that walked the line of subtle politics without ever losing sight of the heart of the song or his rebel roots.