Live Review: Steve Earle- Australian Tour 2012
First published at Unpaved.
Steve Earle: Memories of Meeniyan
Steve Earle at Meeniyan Hall with The Yearlings
Wednesday 28 March 2012
Written by Les Thomas | Photograph by Tony Proudfoot
When it comes to the singer-songwriters we love — the ones who put into words things we’ve only felt — we all have our fantasies about the perfect place to see them play. In my case that was seeing Steve Earle at the quiet and intimate setting of Meeniyan Hall. Scores of incredible artists have tread those boards in recent years, thanks to the taste and singular dedication of Ian Bevington. Steve’s date at Meeniyan was a dream come true for Ian as well, because he only books acts that he totally believes in. In the case of this show, it’s taken about 16 years to come true.
Supports The Yearlings’ Robyn Chalklen and Chris Parkinson had no hesitation in driving all the way from South Australia to support a musical hero in a place that they loved. Their tender and gentle country-blues proved a beautiful contrast to Steve Earle’s more earthy approach. Unlike so many city shows, the audience gave them their full attention while quietly tucking into BYO drinks and nibblies.
It had been four years since Steve Earle’s Washington Square Serenade Australian Tour. On the same evening that Barack Obama was elected President, his singer-songwriter wife Allison Moorer opened with an inspired version of Sam Cooke’s Change Is Gonna Come. The I’ll Never Get Out of This World AliveTour saw him traveling and playing unaccompanied. He’s comfortable doing it that way because it wasn’t until his early 30s that he started playing with a band. And what better way to hear every word from one of the finest living songwriters on the planet?
Planting himself in front of the microphone, Earle launches into the homesick blues of Steve’s Last Ramble followed by the more hopeful Tennessee Blues. With a career spanning 40 odd years, he carries a treasure trove of songs to pull out as suits. He contrasts Tom Ames’ Prayer with God is God as examples of the kind of songs he wrote at 19 and the kind of songs he writes at 56. Or the acidic tale of love gone wrong in Now She’s Gone contrasts with a heartbreaking version of Goodbye. “Same girl different harmonica” he says.
As well as dry humour, there is a solemn aspect to what Steve Earle does. I guess his journey through the Twelve Step Program and surviving drug and alcoholism are part of the explanation. He’s also lived long enough to have powerful insights that he can share with conviction. When he straps on his Bouzouki to sing the Gulf of Mexico, about the hardships that flow from BP’s devastating oil spill, there is an anger and an urgency about it. His take on the instrument is rough and ready, but it rocks like hell. More like a rollicking night in Dublin than Old Athens.
“Immigration is our past, our present and our future, if we have one at all” he says before playing City of Immigrants, which positively celebrates cultural diversity. At the time the song was written, Lou Dobbswas on an aggressive anti-immigration campaign, and the significance of singing the song in Australia given the hysteria about “boat arrivals” isn’t lost on Steve.
When he picks up the mandolin, Earle credits Warrnambool instrument maker Steve Gilchrist as being one of the world’s best. He left his own Gilchrist mandolin back home because it’s too precious to take out on tour. The brand name on this one (six letters starting with G, ending with N) has been masked over with tape and substituted with the word “F*ck” in protest at that company’s predatory pricing policies. He isn’t concerned about any legal consequences, though. “I’ve been married seven times and I know what to do in a law suit,” he laughs.
Being in the middle of brown coal country isn’t going to prevent Steve Earle from speaking his mind on dangerous re-opened coal mines, fracking and the importance of strong unions as he leads into The Mountain. The audience harmonies on the choruses bring a massive smile to Steve’s face. Clearly this isn’t something that happens very often, but he loves it.
Earle delivers a moving monologue and picks chords for Rex’s Bluesas he introduces a selection of Townes Van Zandt songs. His tribute Fort Worth Blues, written a month after Townes’ passing, draws tears in every corner of the room.
The best song introduction has to go to The Devil’s Right Hand. When Justin Townes Earle was 14, his mother was at her wit’s end and decided it was time for Steve to do his share of parenting. One of the first thing’s JTE did to make himself known was take the handgun Earle kept loaded under his mattress. JTE refused to say where the gun was, so Steve called his brother over to help him put a naked JTE into the truck (“Like wrestling a wild deer” he said) to go to some godforsaken youth camp in the hills in the middle of winter. At 3am the next morning, a shivering JTE called home to tell his daddy exactly where the gun was.
No one is going to go home disappointed with a stomping version of Copperhead Road finishing off the main set, but twenty two songs are barely enough for a crowd that are fully aware of the treat they’re receiving. A generous three song encore closes the night, and Steve Earle raises his fist in salute to say goodnight.
I managed to see Steve Earle perform on two other occasions during this Australian tour: The Corner Hotel on March 30 and Bluesfest on April 7 where he played straight after his son Justin Townes Earle.
On March 29, the night was somewhat marred by jeering crowd members impatient to hear Copperhead Road a la the full band recording, but the audience on the the 30th couldn’t have been more wonderful. He sang Christmas in Washington, a song I’ve been desperate to hear live, in honour of Woody Guthrie. At Bluesfest he played a brand new songthat protests Walmart’s tendency to set up shop in small towns with devastating results for local businesses.
Each show was different and inspiring in different ways. Memories of Meeniyan stay with me most strongly, though, for the intimacy of the setting, the sense of occasion and the openness of the exchange between audience and performer. Those are rare moments we can savour long after the last notes fade.
SET LIST: STEVE EARLE AT MEENIYAN 28 MARCH 2102
- Steve’s Last Ramble
- Tennessee Blues
- My Old Friend the Blues
- Some Day
- Angry Young Man
- Tom Ames’ Prayer
- God is God
- Now She’s Gone
- Every Part of Me
- Waiting on the Sky
- Gulf of Mexico
- City of Immigrants
- Little Emperor
- Galway Girl
- The Mountain
- Rex’s Blues
- Fort Worth Blues
- Pancho and Lefty
- Devil’s Right Hand
- Copperhead Road
- Ellis Unit One
- Billy Austin
- Guitar Town