Stacey Earle
& Mark Stuart
at the Borderline,
London, UK
(24 May 2002)

There's just something about Stacey Earle. It could be those big eyes with the equally large toothy grin that just oozes warmth and happiness. Perhaps it's her contagious enthusiasm that just spreads itself all around the venue and probably heads out down the street for a block or two. Maybe it's the honest, heartfelt songs she writes that just make you feel good inside. Whatever it is, spending a night with Earle and her equally talented husband, Mark Stuart, just can't help but make you feel upbeat and positive about life in general.

As soon as Earle and Stuart enter, it's obvious they're there to enjoy themselves as well as entertain the crowd. They're in a basement in London; it's a club that holds maybe 250 people. "We've got a little light show going," Stuart jokingly said as he played with the reflections on his guitar. "We bring our own," he continued. "It used to be lasers." There aren't going to be any lasers in the Borderline that night nor probably any other night. However, Stuart and Earle don't need any of those extras to impress their audience. Right away, they launched into "In My Way," from Earle's debut album, Simple Gearle. While she took the lead vocals, he joined in on the chorus. One thing about their harmonizing that's interesting is that it's a free and equal relationship. Neither voice overwhelms the other.

Earle's voice seem to reflect that kind of twisted silver that just sparkles and shines. There's some Nanci Griffith feel to it with the full, throaty feel that Earle creates. If anyone in the crowd was feeling low, Earle has enough enthusiasm to loan out; there are lots of big, toothy grins. She just seems happy to be able to do her job with her husband.

Part of the job is trying out new numbers. While they played a number of songs from Earle's releases, they also auditioned some new pieces. "This song is still really new to us, and we haven't settled on a title yet," Stuart announced to audience laughter after they played a duet with an old-timey, folkabilly feel. Another new number, which made references to living a "fishbowl life, just swimming in a circle," has an alt-country beat to it, but the lyrics seem to reflect more real life philosophy the longer you listen to it.

A number of Earle's songs are like that, and while they're strong on the CD, they're even stronger live. "How I Ran," from her second album, Dancing With Them That Brung Me, seems more poignant, as if she's explaining her own life choices to the audience. When Earle asked the audience if there were any requests, she wound up sorting through them all and came up with "Show Me How" from her first album. Again, its gentle philosophy seems more alive when she's singing it right to you. There's something about her energy that just makes her seem almost possessed while she performs.

In terms of instrumental music, Stuart tends to take the lead on guitar, but both of them are pretty skilled with the instrument. Stuart, however, takes charge of his acoustic guitar and turns it into his own band. At one point, he was playing bass lines on it and jokingly admitted, "I don't need no stinkin' bass player." The audience laughed, but he's right. He creates his own bass. There were times he took over lead vocals, as on the bluesy "Boss is Watching." Earle quietly left the stage as he took over the song and set momentarily. He has a hint of nasality in his voice, but it's OK. It can handle the high notes, and it's a strong instrument.

Earle confessed that she normally likes to talk a lot between the songs, but because of their strict curfew at the Borderline, she was holding back. "I never get a chance (to talk) at home," she said with a grin. "When I get up here, it's my floor." Both she and Stuart focused on playing as many songs as they could in the limited time, and they didn't work from a set list. Earle would look down at the sheet on the floor, but it only reminded her of their curfew. She considered going past the time limit ("there's more of us than them," she noted), but she's played that venue before and realized she'd like to return. A true lady, she thanked the audience for being wonderful listeners and closed the set with "Goodby." Interestingly though, even a song of leaving seems faintly upbeat, as if she's examining more the freedom gained when leaving rather than the regret.

Earle and Stuart can make blues numbers ring so that the audience isn't depressed by them. When they sing a gospel number (their encore was an a cappella gospel song), they sound as if they are possessed by the holy spirit. They have enough energy for an entire band, and the two of them are just too cute for words. (There were moments when they shared one microphone that I was convinced they were going to kiss.) As Earle herself admitted, the evening "seems like it went so fast."

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 6 July 2002