This had had the makings of a perfect summer evening in Colorado.
Two bands with revered, iconic figures were offering international roots music that covered Spanish cumbia, outlaw alt-country, Gaelic/Celtic folk and all-American rock 'n' roll, all delivered at an up-close-and-personal outdoor amphitheater that may be the best-kept secret in the Denver area, if not all of Colorado.
As soon as Steve Earle and his white western hat hit the stage, though, there was a key element missing in action. More on that later.
The July 28 show at the Arvada Center, with spectators in reserved seating blessed with quality sound, incredible sight lines and overhead protection from the storm clouds moving in, was promoted and advertised as a twin-billing night with Steve Earle and the Dukes (and Duchesses) featuring Allison Moorer and Los Lobos.
Both acts deserve to be -- and undoubtedly have been -- headliners around the world, building up their hardcore fan base over the years with an intoxicating blend of righteous slice-of-life expressions and head-bobbing, foot-stomping anthems.
When it doesn't turn out quite like that, you have to wonder what went wrong. After Earle's routine opening, Los Lobos seemingly gave it their all in a 90-minute set. It began with traditional, mariachi-style strumming ("Canto a Veracruz," "El Cascabel") and included predictable but crowd-pleasing gems such as the Grateful Dead's "Bertha" and a fitting finale -- "La Bamba" wrapped around a few verses of The Rascals' "Good Lovin'."
The degree of difficulty to get dazed-and-confused concertgoers out of their comfy chairs or picnic-perfect, manicured lawn locations must have been as high as the altitude, though. After four songs, Los Lobos spokesman Cesar Rosas, who had the unenviable task of zapping some energy into the crowd, said, "Can y'all breathe all right?... I need some tequila."
A sampling of his lounge-lizard lingo included:
"How's everybody doing tonight?"
"Are we having fun?"
"Are you having a good time?"
Despite rousing Mexican polka numbers like "Los Ojos de Pancha," featuring band co-founder David Hidalgo on accordion, Rosas eventually just had to ask, "Are you out there?"
With other esteemed members Louie Perez, Conrad Lozano and Steve Berlin, at least Los Lobos eventually managed to make an impact on an appreciative but restrained audience that exceeded the respectable numbers that showed up for Lucinda Williams the previous week. (Members of Los Lobos, from left: César Rosas , Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez and David Hidalgo.)
Williams, part of the Arvada Center's SummerStage lineup that began with the Indigo Girls in June and ends with John Hiatt on Aug. 29, raved about the venue, and that showed in a spirited, heartfelt performance.
Since Earle & Co. essentially operated as an opening act, it might be somewhat unfair to compare the two, because those types of gigs for one of America's most admired singer-songwriters probably are few and far between, the series of dates with Los Lobos notwithstanding.
Other than a fine mid-afternoon slot on the opening day of the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Earle received top billing in nine other concerts I have attended since becoming a fan in March 2005. That's when his rollicking Revolution Starts Now tour (with Moorer opening, five months before they married) came to Boulder's Fox Theatre. The show -- with scorching covers of "Revolution," "Sweet Virginia" and "Time Has Come Today" -- still ranks as one of my all-time favorites.
But that was then, this is now. Earle's uninspired hourlong outing with the drowsy Dukes (and just one Duchess) left spectators glued to their seats -- and not in a good way.
OK, maybe Earle had reason to play it by the numbers. Despite the threatening skies, it was still daylight and the road can be a lonely place without your family. Moorer, whose tremendously rich vocals and instrumental versatility have taken this road show down a more refined path in recent years, wasn't there, but her absence was understandable.
As far back as May, this Oscar- and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who provides more than just a lovely complement to Earle's gruff voice, let it be known on Twitter that she wouldn't be performing the rest of the year while taking care of their 2-year-old son, John Henry.
For anyone who has seen or heard Moorer perform, she was dearly missed. Without her, though, shouldn't the others try to collectively pick up the slack? That didn't happen.
While the husband-and-wife team of Chris Masterson on guitar and Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle provided a few musical highlights, they lacked any real onstage chemistry with Earle. That's surprising since their youth and vitality were supposed to inject new blood into this revamped act that began touring in support of his 2011 album I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. But when the snarls and blank stares outnumber the smiles and encores, a crowd just yearning to be entertained can sense that disconnect.
Veteran Dukes Kelly Looney (bass) and Will Rigby (drums) formed a formidable rhythm section, so the musicianship was still there, thankfully. That gave the audience a reason to politely applaud and, on occasion, even cheer. Earle mainstays such as "Copperhead Road," "The Galway Girl" and "Guitar Town" were well-received. But all 15 songs were played just 10 months ago at the Ogden Theatre in nearby Denver. And a set list that keeps opening with "Waitin' On The Sky" and "Little Emperor," his not-so-subtle dig at George W. Bush, needs to be refreshed.
Even jokes about his sheep-scaring banjo-playing and airport security-challenging bouzouki are getting stale.
As anyone who has enjoyed Earle's Hardcore Troubadour radio show on Sirius can attest, he can be an engaging, intriguing host and masterful storyteller. His between-song banter is often filled with passionate angry-man rants, but on this day he kept unusually quiet.
Since it is an election year, he did share the expected political rhetoric about how "this country's past, present and future is immigration, if we have a future." A worthy message, to be sure, yet the ideology is clearly presented in the song that follows -- "City of Immigrants."
Granted, opening a show prevents an artist with such a comprehensive catalog to cut some features from a headlining set that can run at least 2 1/2 hours, like the far superior performance, prominently featuring Moorer, before a raucous Ogden crowd last September.
There, Moorer played keyboards, accordion and electric and acoustic guitars while -- in Earle's words -- "out-singing everybody up here, believe that." Here, the bandleader should have realized his band's limitations and acted accordingly.
In a considerably more charming, intimate setting such as the Arvada Center, it wouldn't hurt to make a more personal connection (Moorer wasn't even mentioned) or throw a change-up, whether it's being more adventurous with obscure covers, putting his own twist on recent material or introducing new songs from his next album, much like Williams did.
Earle did vindicate himself somewhat when he and Masterson returned with electric guitars during Los Lobos' encore for a cover of the Sir Douglas Quintet nugget "She's About a Mover."
After rambling back to watch Los Lobos close it out with "La Bamba," who knows what he was thinking while he stood in the wings, expressionless and arms folded.
Every artist is entitled to a bad day/night, especially someone as consistent as Earle has been since the day he turned sober. But to borrow a fractured phrase from the ex-president Earle loves to hate, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me ... you can't get fooled again."
Arvada Center concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more Steve Earle photos from the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
See a slideshow from the Arvada Center concerts: