“Liberty is the price we have to pay for freedom,” quipped T-Bone Burnett as he started his Tuesday night [May 29] in-your-neocon-face show at DC’s 9:30 Club. Burnett, best known these days as the producer of the soundtracks for “Oh Brother Where Art Thou,” “Cold Mountain,” and “Walk the Line,” led a terrific band through nearly three hours of his songs with the help of an outstanding band and a full house of fans.
The locals paid to be critics — if the pans in the Post and the Times (he played in New York two nights later) were any indication — didn’t much like Burnett’s songs, and clearly thought he should confine himself to producing records and making other people’s music irresistible. For my money, it’s too bad Burnett couldn’t have stayed around for a week or two, taking his trenchant political rhymes to other corners of the Greater Capital Area. Whether playing “Fear Country” from his current “True – False Identity” album, or the still-resonant “Primitives” and “Tear This Building Down” from 1992’s “Criminal Under My Own Hat,” Burnett and his band provided sonic tonic for those of us dwelling in the environs of Fear Country headquarters.
Burnett’s biting lyrics and complex musical landscapes put me in mind of Bertolt Brecht — if Brecht had grown up in Fort Worth, Texas, listening to roots and blues and Gill Scott-Heron. And playing last week with what Burnett called “the best rock and roll band of all time.” He was not being unduly modest. The last time he toured and came to Washington — in 1986, I heard him at the original club at 930 F St. It was a sweltering Washington night, and the old club’s AC unit made such a racket that it had to be shut off to be able to hear T-Bone sing from “Truth Decay” and other early records, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. On this tour he had Marc Ribot taking lead guitar riffs where they have not been before, against poly-rhythms laid down by the great Jim Keltner on drums. Burnett brought the same ear he’s honed as a studio producer to crafting the rich and dense but always well-delineated rock-cabaret sound that he has made a trade-mark on his own recent recordings.
Burnett has little use for the politics once known as faith-based. In “Every Time I Feel the Shift,” with it’s refrain of “We’re marching up to Zion / That beauitful city of God,” Burnett sings, “If there were an Eleventh Commandment / In twenty years people would be shocked to learn / That there had once been ten / And wouldn’t care if there had been.” In “Blinded by the Darkness,” he asks, “Do we want to inject the concept of sin / Into the Constitution Is this really necessary.”
Burnett doesn’t spell out an agenda. “This version of the world will not be here long / It is already gone,” is how he concludes the new song “Palestine Texas,” but he closed his multi-song encore with “Bon Temps Rouler” — the only song he sang that evening that he did not write himself.
Joe Stork works with the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch in Washington DC.