Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, singer-songwriters of the first order, performed together at the Neptune Theatre on Sunday, Aug. 21, to promote their first album as a pair, “Colvin & Earle.”

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Concert review

It’s always a good sign when the stage is set before a concert with six acoustic instruments and nothing else. At the Neptune Theatre on Sunday (Aug. 21), Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin made those four guitars — and two mandolins — talk.

Both of these respected singer-songwriters have deep catalogs of hits, so the idea of their doing a duet tour seemed obvious, but they were also promoting their first album as a pair, “Colvin & Earle.”

They sang together on most songs, including their opener of the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie.” That was an upbeat start, but both these musicians know that they excel with dark, brooding breakup songs. Colvin described her “Sunny Came Home” as an “arson breakup song,” but Earle had an even better description: “It’s a murder ballad.”

Colvin sang that one by herself, but with Steve Earle as her one-man backup band. Both musicians also are stellar guitar players, and Colvin added texture to Earle hits like “Burnin’ It Down,” another “arson song,” she noted.

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It was a joy to listen to these veterans explore and annotate their catalogs, as well as covers like “Raise the Dead” by Emmylou Harris, though on the Rolling Stones classic “Ruby Tuesday,” Earle’s rough vocals didn’t mesh enough with Colvin’s sweet contralto.

At any Earle show the audience knows to expect back stories about instruments, how songs were written and inspirations (he name-checked Guy Clark and Fred Neil). While those insights helped frame the songs on the pair’s new album, it was the story before Earle’s “Someday” that provided the night’s most emotional moment.

As Earle and Colvin strummed the chords, he talked about struggling to get a break in Nashville, writing that hit, becoming a star, then descending into heroin addiction. Coming out of that, he was broke. Then he heard that Colvin, a star herself then, was covering “Someday,” and it helped him recover. When they launched into the song together, it was chilling.

By the end of the night all four guitars and both mandolins had been played. It was an exceptional show, and after it ended with Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” the singers exited.

Only the row of instruments remained.