“I remember my first beer”: Steve Earle in Winnipeg – Jan.29, 2010
I saw Steve Earle on the opening date of the Exit 0 tour in May of 1987 and haven’t missed a single local show since. I’ve gone out of my way to see him out of town countless times too, in North Dakota, Minnesota, as well as at Merlefest in North Carolina and others. I’ve loved the guy intensely since Guitar Town but I’m honest enough with my geekdom to know when a particular concert isn’t quite up to parr. There have been shows, with The Dukes and solo, that felt a little on the rote side of things, but even during the junkie-run of the late ’80’s, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a bad Steve Earle show. And last night’s chapter at the Burton Cummings Theatre, in the midst of his tour celebrating his latest album Townes, was no exception. It was however, the ugliest audience I’ve ever been a part of in my long history of enjoying live music.
There was that poor sap at that ’87 Playhouse Theatre gig who stopped the show to generously present Steve with his well-worn baseball cap and who constantly made trips back up to the stage all night long to remind him “that’s a Manitoba hat, Steve!” We’ll never forget that guy. The kid in North Dakota with the denim vest that was on fire (how’d he do that?) stands out from the El Corazon tour. Not that he caused any trouble, really. The crowd at the front of the stage at that show was pretty unruly though, matching any slamfest hardcore show I’ve ever been to. There was the photographer at First Avenue in Minneapolis who rudely pushed his way in front of my wife which necessitated me chivalrously grabbing him by the back of his jacket to throw him out of the way, which in turn almost saw a stage monitor come tumbling off the stage much to the uh-oh-whatthefuck of Steve and the band. OK, that was my bad, too.
In terms of non-Earle events, there was that show by The Mentors at Wellington’s that was broken up by the cops back in the day. That was an interesting night. On the other end of the spectrum was the North Dakota John Prine show that was ruined by a group of sloshed, middle-aged women, who were clearly huge fans but just didn’t know how to behave in public. Speaking of the Dakotas, who can forget the 18 year olds up from that state who found they could legally drink for the first time at that Fred Eaglesmith show at the WECC? Certainly not Fred or bandmate Dan Walsh who changed from his formal bluegrass suit to his fightin’ clothes in the blink of an eye at the end of the night, looking for blood. The kid’s mom was there though, and she made them apologize for their night-long bufoonery, so they survived. Those jerks at that Motorhead show… those yuppie-fucks at that First Avenue John Hiatt show… ah, there’s a million of ’em. But generally, whenever I’ve witnessed a bad audience moment, it’s involved a small isolated group or individual and of course, almost always involved liquor.
Such was the case at the show last night. Now, ever since Steve went from Canadian arena-rock status back down to the soft-seater theatre scene, there has never been a single show without some doofus calling out for “Copperhead Road”. Or just inappropriately calling out in general. This has lead to some wonderful comments from Steve that are now as integral to a regular set as “Guitar Town” or “Copperhead Road” itself. We got all the hits last night. “Are you retarded or something?”, “Am I annoying you?”, “Shut the fuck up” and of course, the “Stairway To Heaven” of Steve Earle lines, “I remember my first beer, too”. I for one went to the show last night fully expecting to hear all of these moments and in some perverse way, almost looking forward to them as they always provided something to laugh about after the show.
I will never understand why Steve doesn’t just open the show with “Copperhead Road” and get it over with. That way, the old school crowd that hasn’t paid attention to the fact that it’s a solo acoustic folk show and not a full band rock experience, can at least be happy that they heard their damn song and leave if they get bored. Of course, there was that one show where “Copperhead Road” was requested after it had already been played. I guess you can’t really win that one. Still, it’s been a good while since Steve had the big-time late ’80’s success and while his artistic output has never faltered, the shut-up-and-sing crowd have thinned out nicely. Recent tours have seen a noticeable decline in the doofus factor and even when it does surface, it’s been easy for Steve to pick out the individual, humiliate them in public, and move on rather quickly.
I don’t know what brought out the freaks last night in such huge numbers, but it was not pretty. Steve commented at one point, positively, how the crowd was actually bigger that night than recent past shows in the same venue. On the same track, album sales for “Townes” were better too. You would think that would translate to people knowing what they were in for and appreciating it. I suppose for the most part they were. But even when there are 1,500 or so decent, attentive listeners in a room, a dozen or two boisterous idiots are going to win out. And last night they did in spades.
I can’t even say I heard anyone call out for “Copperhead Road” specifically. That’s only because the shouting blurred into an indecipherable din. There was the guy in the balcony who called out for “Guitar Town” a few dozen too many times, that Steve singled out throughout the latter part of the show. At first he announced he would not be doing “Guitar Town” that night specifically because of this one asshole. I have often seen Steve Earle frustrated with individuals in his audience, but never to the level that it got to last night. He threatened to leave the stage and end the show pre-encore, and if he had there were 1,500 (or so) folks that would not have blamed him one bit.
My own personal moment of friction came early in the evening, during “Pancho & Lefty”, certainly one of the most pivotal moments of a Townes Van Zandt themed show. I was seated in the front row, all the way over to the left side of the theatre right next to the raised open area that is reserved for last-minute VIPs and handicapped audience members not able to sit in the regular seats. Early on in the song, a guy in a wheelchair, who had already been quite vocal with “turn it up” (resulting in Steve sarcastically raising up his guitar as high as he could) and “get on with it” during the between song monologues, decided to start a conversation with his buddy next to him. There were likely people at the Motley Crue show two blocks away that were annoyed by this conversation. A security guard standing a foot and a half away from us, turned to stare the guy down with a stern scowl, but never actually said or did anything. So finally I got up, leaned over and got as close to the guy as I could and sternly, but politely, said “Would you please shut the fuck up?” Well, I’m not sure what kind of reaction I was expecting exactly, but it set the guy off big time. “Did you hear what that old guy said to me? Hey you fuckin’ faggot! Let’s have it out right now! I’ll kick your ass! Yada yada yada…”
“Faggot”, OK, I can see that, but “old”?? C’mon! There’s no reason for that! Anyway, then Mr. Security guy finally steps in when it’s apparent this guy isn’t going to shut the fuck up like I requested so nicely, and he tries to get the guy to settle down. That still didn’t accomplish much, but by then my fellow audience members in my area had bonded and began to stare the guy down to the point where he had little choice but to leave of his own accord. $50 wisely spent, buddy. I looked for him after the show, as he requested, but I never did see him again. I was expecting a Holy Grailesque Black Knight moment with this guy. “Come back – I’ll bite your knees off” or something. Now, I have no idea what this guy’s story was or why he was in a wheel chair. I know if I was confined to a wheel chair for the rest of my life, I’m sure I’d consider it my right to be as pissed drunk as I wanted to be. But being an asshole at a folk music show, not so much.
Steve’s performance itself was great. Centered around the influence of Townes Van Zandt on his life, there were plenty of stories and tall tales, many that you’d heard before if you’ve been keeping track over the years. But told as a piece alongside the songs Townes taught him and the songs he wrote himself from those lessons, it painted a moving picture of the relationship these two bloodbrothers shared.
Of course, there were stories that never quite got told. To introduce his song “City of Immigrants”, Earle began to talk about a deli at the end of his street in New York City. Before he could get into the meat of the story, his frustration over the continuos audience babble finally got the better of him and he dropped it with a gruff “you don’t wanna fucking hear this” and dove right into the song.
Staying clean often leaves former substance abusers with little or no tolerance for others suffering from the same self-abuse, and Steve has been miraculously cleansed from unimaginable filth for 15 years now. And his disdain for his own and other’s foolishness is obvious. And that’s a good thing, particularly when he’s about to become a father again at age 55. After begrudgingly performing “Guitar Town” (“so that guy won’t get the shit beat out of him on his way out”), he stepped to the edge of the stage and stood heroically statuesque with his middle finger hoisted towards the balcony. The moment screamed out for a Jim Marshall photograph. The finger was aimed at one guy in particular, but it’s just as easy to say it was aimed at the night’s yahoo contingent in general as well as the universal tragedy that took away his friend Townes and almost cost him his own life.
He returned to the stage for a short encore and started off apologizing for losing his cool so completely. A graceful gesture no one would have had the gall to expect that night. Steve mentioned that he would indeed return to the 2nd drunkest city on the entire tour (I’d love to know who won the contest) but that he would guarantee that the bar would be shut down as early as possible when he did. Another nice gesture, but face it – most of the idiots who were the cause of this show’s grief, arrived at the venue already tanked. Cutting them off after the fact isn’t going to do much. Is there any kind of solution to this? Of course not. Whadayagonnado? At the end of the night, with Steve being who he was, the show was still much more entertaining, if perversely so, than that John Prine show in Grand Forks.
“It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans” – Sloan, “Coax Me”