Steve Earle at the Sage Music Centre, Gateshead
Tonight’s concert, in the acoustically perfect Sage Music Centre was as good as I’ve ever seen and I’ve been to a lot of gigs in my time.
The Dukes and Duchesses were already on stage singing Waiting on the Sky from the latest album as I made my way to my seat; and I was just getting comfortable as Steve growled the introduction to ‘a new sea shanty’ – which was actually the powerful Gulf of Mexico about the BP oil spill in the afore mentioned Gulf. Earle has never been afraid to take on risky subjects and this song is a doozy!
This was followed by a more traditional folk song; Molly-O without any introduction; which stirred some reservations as I prefer Earle’s rockier output; but it was needless, as Steve moved seamlessly into a strikingly beautiful but grizzly, Every Part of Me; which also comes from I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE. I’d only listened to the album twice, earlier in the day so was staggered at how good and instantly memorable these songs were when played live.
The next song was introduced by Steve explaining that he wasn’t playing a banjo but a Bouzouki that he tuned like a banjo. This led into a story which touched on politics for the first in the evening before singing the potent City of Immigrants which couldn’t be more current.
As the first half drew far too quickly to a close I was stunned to hear one of my favourites appear so early – My Old Friend the Blues. It says a lot about Earle’s body of work that he can slip songs as popular as this and Guitar Town into the first half of a show when his contemporaries would keep them for encores.
Ms. Moorer was asked to come to the front of the stage and join Steve for a harmony drenched Days Are Never Long Enough with his grizzled voice and her pitch perfect tones complimenting each other like fish and chips.
Steve left the stage to leave his wife in the spotlight for three songs. The first two were quite good and made me want to search out more of her work but the third song……..absolutely blew me away.
Allison was now playing a silver Gibson Les Paul and she gently strummed the opening chords to A Change is Gonna Come. My initial reaction was to think “that’s a brave decision” but four minutes later I firmly believed that I’d heard the definitive version of this classic song. Her voice soared from note to note as the band remained quite restrained and subdued throughout, leaving her voice to draw attention to the words and give an electrifying performance!
The second spot began with Allison creating the iconic bagpipe sound on her keyboards which begat a rip-roaring version of Copperhead Road as Steve threw big Rock guitar shapes as he played his mandolin!
Sticking with the mandolin, the band went into the very Irish Galway Girl much to everyone’s delight. This was followed by a monologue about his Bluegrass album with Del McCoury that was predominantly about coal mining and unions; which elicited some cheers from the crowd before he sang two songs that were featured on it.
I think I was the only person who saw the irony in a particularly middle-class audience cheering a simplistic pseudo-Socialist speech about ‘Unions = Good; Bosses = Bad;’ perhaps I’m getting old.
Back to the music.
By this stage the band was in fine form; with Eleanor Whitmore excelling on the fiddle and an assortment of guitars, Chris Masterson playing his big white Gretsch with all the vim and vigour of a young Keef or Slash and then there is Allison Moorer, or Mrs. Earle as we should call her. The redheaded beauty very nearly stole the show as she shone on keyboards and accordion and played a mean guitar all evening and when she sang harmonies…..I went weak at the knees.
The tempo was soon lifted when Steve strapped on his electric guitar and harmonica for a crazily Gothic version of Meet Me in the Alleyway that made Dr. John sound like a little girlie. This is a five star song in my book and went straight into my Top 10 songs of the year.
Somewhere in the set were another two or three ‘generic’ Steve Earle songs that I didn’t recognise; but still liked which is the mark of a great songwriter.
Another stand out song (I was now thinking the new album has to go into a different Top 10 list) was This City Won’t Wash Away which was written for an episode of Treme and sent shivers down my spine.
As the Bass player, guitarist and fiddle player all got the opportunity to play a song of their own during the set I couldn’t help think that Steve Earle is a less grumpy and more philanthropic version of Neil Young.
As the band left the stage I was left wondering what they had left in the tank for an encore.
When they returned they tore straight into my ‘theme tune’ – I Ain’t Ever Satisfied! Then Steve amused us with the story of his time with son Justin, when he was 14 and stole his daddy’s loaded gun. It got laughs but was also a little scary. Apparently this episode changed his attitude to owning guns and also affected his singing of Devil’s Right Hand which no longer celebrates owning a gun.
The band left the stage to a justified standing ovation; but the house lights remained dimmed causing some confusion until they trooped back out for a second encore.
This was a brand new song without a title and will be used in the next series of Treme. It’s a delightful New Orleans stomp full of geetars, accordion and swirling fiddle and is very positive about the future of this iconic city and I loved it.
What more can I say? Seeing Steve Earle play live was a treat worth waiting for and because I can’t think of anyone else who can cover folk, Country, Alt, Rock and even the Blues as well as the best and much better than the rest; surely he must be crowned the King of Americana at the earliest opportunity.