For John Henry: Steve Earle and Friends at Town Hall
A delightful holiday party and a sudden Manhattan downpour both militated against my making a benefit gig for which I’d bought tickets for myself and two friends last Monday night, but I was determined not to miss it. People did come in late, shaking themselves like dogs in the aisles and hurrying to seats in the middle of the first set, but I was not one of them. The show was Steve Earle’s, and his special guests, on a very special night, included his longtime band the Dukes, the Mastersons, son Justin Townes Earle, and old friend Jackson Browne. Neither snow (fat chance of that in New York these days) nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night could have made me late for this.
Earle, together with Michael Dorf of City Winery (in whose venues nationwide Earle has played residencies over the past few years), announced the evening at Town Hall as a benefit for the Keswell School. Founded as The McCarton School in 2002, Keswell is a school in Chelsea that provides specialized, one-on-one education grounded in Applied Behavioral Analysis for autistic children. Earle’s youngest son, with former wife Allison Moorer, 5-year-old John Henry Earle, attends the school.
Both parents have spoken eloquently and movingly about their son’s autism, Moorer in a recent Rolling Stone interview and Earle in a number of interviews and often from the stage during his shows. Earle spoke of his gratitude to the school for what it has taught John Henry as a reason he wanted to help give something back to Keswell.
The Dukes and the Mastersons have recently been on a long tour with Earle, which rolls on through March 2016, in support of Earle’s latest record, Terraplane. The Mastersons are not just Earle bandmates, but a smoking Texas husband-and-wife duo, with Chris Masterson on guitar and vocals and Eleanor Whitmore on the fiddle and — as Earle said admiringly — “singing her ass off.” Masterson’s dark hair is now shock-white, but his Buddy Holly glasses and spectacular, herky-jerky Hollyesque passionate playing remain. (Whitmore is still a redhead, and long may she stay that way.) Their opening set included the beautiful “Good Luck Charm” from their 2014 record of the same name.
“Matt Savage was the first person I thought of for this benefit,” Earle said, introducing the young jazz pianist and composer who was diagnosed at the age of three with pervasive developmental disorder, a high-functioning type of autism. He could not stand music or noises as a small child, but when he was just over six began teaching himself music at a hyper-accelerated pace. Now 23, he has a host of albums and performed his jazz-fusion “Go On” as well as playing keyboards for The Dukes later in the show.
Justin Townes Earle hasn’t performed much with his father in the past. I hope they might do so in the future; both obviously enjoyed their numbers at the end of Justin’s set, which he introduced with an expansive arm stretched out to his right, and the announcement: “Dad.” All angles and planes, long arms and legs, hiding under his long-brimmed baseball cap and playing with joy and singing the almighty out of his songs, Justin is a remarkable, unique performer these days — just like the fellow he’s named for. Townes Van Zandt was Steve Earle’s mentor and running buddy during some wild times three decades ago and more; it’s a heavy legacy to carry, musically and otherwise, but Justin is managing these days with a grateful grace. He cited his 2013 marriage as a huge benefit to his life these days, and spoke a little wistfully — but not too — about New York, where he once lived (he and wife Jenn Marie now make their home in Nashville). Yet his last two albums, recorded at the same time, are called Single Mothers (2013) and Absent Fathers (2014); his life taught him whereof he sings. The singing was fine, but what he said mattered much. Talking lovingly about his little brother, Justin said, “I’ve never heard him say a word, but you know, it’s like that song of John Prine’s, ‘Hello In There.’” The audience murmured and the line, and the Prine tune, ran in our heads for the rest of the evening even though no one performed it.
“I knew this guy would be there for me,” said Earle, welcoming Jackson Browne to the stage as his last guest. If there’s a musician who reliably shows up for causes and people he believes in, it’s Browne. I’ve known him to be a good friend to Levon Helm Studios, the home of the Midnight Ramble and still an active live music and recording venue today — someone who is a champion of Helm’s dying wish to “keep it goin.'” As one of “John Henry’s friends,” Browne stood quietly, just himself and his guitars, and shook that perfect floppy brown hair and let that radiant, ringing voice wash across the shallow orchestra bowl of Town Hall like magic. He’s been great for a long time now, but didn’t rub it in. Marveling that this was his first time ever at Town Hall, Browne was visibly happy to be there (and he’ll be back in March 2016). He sang his own hits, of which there are so many, more than you remember, but you were waiting for “These Days,” and he knew it. A lovely surprise was Earle’s own “Jerusalem.” Joining Browne, Earle grinned that now he’d heard Joan Baez and Jackson Browne both sing that song, implying that this was more than any songwriter ought to expect in a lifetime. The two of them did a duet of Dave Van Ronk’s bleak classic “Cocaine (Cocaine Blues)” that had a lot of experience to it.
Earle and the Dukes, and the Mastersons, turned in a heartfelt set of their own that included tracks from Terraplane, like “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” and “You’re The Best Lover I Ever Had.” It was Will Rigby’s last show on drums for The Dukes after years in the saddle, and they’re going to miss him. Earle joked, as he welcomed Whitmore to sing with him on “Baby’s Just as Mean As Me,” that “she has to sing all these parts I wrote for other women. This one’s for her.”
As many times as I’ve heard “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” and “Galway Girl,” I’ll never not want to. You can’t get tired of something as perfect as “Guitar Town,” folks. From that first challenge and invitation of “Hey, pretty baby, are you ready for me?” through the signature twangy riff-as-refrain to the phrases like “smokin’ into Texas with the hammer down” and “two-pack habit and a motel tan,” you end up blistered and glad every time. When Earle and the Dukes stepped out from behind the mics to the front of the stage, and pointed their instruments straight at us, the audience stood up with them and cheered.
Town Hall isn’t much of a stand-up-and-dance venue. I’ve been sat down by ushers there for gleefully bounding to my feet as Richard Thompson played “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)” and David Bromberg played “Sharon.” But no one was going to try to sit down full aisles for a finale, with all the musicians reassembled on stage, of “Take It Easy.”
At a Halloween parade in Woodstock, New York, where Earle and Moorer used to live, I saw little John Henry once. He was less than a year old, then, and in a baby carrier on his father’s chest. He wore an adorable hoodie with little brown bear’s ears pulled up over his blond hair. He was beautiful, with bright eyes taking in every costume, every motion, as Earle spoke quietly to him, pointing things out to his little boy. As Earle sang “Remember Me,” his song for John Henry, I thought of that Halloween day in the Catskills and was grateful for the folks who had showed up at Town Hall, both on stage and in the seats, not only for good music among friends, but a well worthy cause.
Photographs via @ehud_lazin, @bertieoboyle, @_caitlin on Instagram