Steve Earle & the Dukes at their Apex: The “Low Highway” Comes to Wisconsin with its Message of Truth, Hope & Solidarity
For going on over a couple decades now Steve Earle has been Lewis Carroll’s rabbit leading me down a hole to who knows where, hopefully Wonderland. But Earle is too honest of an artist to pretend that Wonderland still exists for the vast majority of Americans eeking out a hard scrabble existence on the “Low Highway”. But like Alice in Carroll’s novel I am transfixed and its far too late to turn back now. But unlike my aborted trip to Bayfield, WI a couple years back where I ate not one but 2 front row seats to see Steve play the Big Top Chautauqua when I ran out of gas and finally reached my destination only to hear the final strains of the performance as I tried to fight my way in like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. No, this time I made it and oh what a beautiful reward!
As any one of the capacity crowd of 971 people lucky enough to be at the Barrymore Theater in Madison, WI will tell you, they witnessed an artist and a band at their peak. I’ve been lucky or blessed to honestly say I have seen some of the greats in all genres except crap. Thankfully most have lived up to their reputations or at least my expectations and sadly a few have fallen well short of the mark and finally a few were just plain old assholes. Frankly, as Al Davis used to say, “Just win baby” my motto is “Just play motherfucker” and last Saturday night at the Barrymore boy did those MFers play.
Now don’t get the wrong impression here. I am very happy to say that Mr. Earle looks and sounds like he has it figured out in life and that’s something you cannot fake or at least fake for long. But enough of my pablum, I’ll just cut to the review.
Opening Act: The Mastersons: Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore
The husband and wife duo who also comprise 1/2 of the Dukes. Performed material from their debut cd “Birds Fly South”. Beautiful harmonies mixed with stellar playing. Ms. Whitmore had me forgeting all about Lucinda on “You’re Still Standing There” from Dukes set and Chris Masterson can do it all. A nuanced, subtle monster on guitar. Thoroughly enjoyable set by two very talented artists. I am looking forward to their next disc.
Steve Earle & the Dukes Set List Barrymore Theater 8/3/2013
The Low Highway
21st Century Blues
I Thought You Should Know
That All You Got?
Love s Gonna Blow My Way
After Mardi Gras
Pocket Full Of Rain
You’re Still Standing There
Burnin It Down
Warren Hellman’s Banjo
Billie & Bonnie
(The Mountain ?)
The Galway Girl
Down the Road Pt II
City Of Immigrants
Nobody But You / Continental Trailways Blues
The Revolution Starts Now
From the opening strains of “The Low Highway” to the closing roar of fuzz guitar on “The Revolution Starts Now” Steve and the Dukes came to play and were invested in their performance. From the brilliant lyrics of “21st Century Blues” to the meth scourge of “Calico County” there is little doubt that the mantle of most intelligent and relevant singer songwriter has been passed to Mr. Earle. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself at a concert as much as when they played “Hard-Core Troubadour” only to be followed with a mesmerizing a cappella incantation that is “I Thought You Should Know”. When Steve slammed his mike stand down at the end of “I Thought You Should Know” indicating he had nailed it, it was at this point that most in the audience realized they were in for something really special.
While the set list was clearly meant to showcase “The Low Highway” which in its low key but perceptive manner may be his most realized work yet, Steve and the the Dukes gave the appreciative audience a complete retrospective of his long and varied career. Most importantly, this was not just some hackneyed greatest hits medley but carefully chosen songs which delivered a message and performed, to a song, better than the originals.
It was fun too. When he was walking over to the piano to play “Pocketful of Rain”, one of the album’s quirky but charming sleepers, someone in the audience yelled out a song request to which Steve replied firmly, but with good nature “we’re only 20 minutes into the show I think I am still in control of my set list”. “Pocketful of Rain” is one of those unique little oddities on an album that for some strange reason really ties the album together and almost defines it by being off topic (Tom Waits comes to mind.) Steve made it even more memorable by telling a story about back in his drinking days, when he got really tight, he thought he could speak Spanish really well but he really couldn’t. Steve also observed that there is something about New Orleans that makes normally sane individuals think they are piano players. (Which brings up one of my pet peeves: Hugh Laurie, nuf said)
There were so many high points, so many moving moments when the artist truly connected with his audience, you justin the moment. Steve’s expressed several times during the performance his admiration and support for the workers and people of one of his favorite places on Earth, Madison, Wisconsin and reminded everyone in attendance that we are living in historic times. While we might not win every battle it is important to fight the good fight and to be good to each other as we are all Americans.
I will never forget as long as I live when Steve introduced the song he wrote for his 3 year old son John Henry, entitled Remember Me. Hearing another father talk about facing something as personal as his child suffering from a disease for which there is currently no cure, Autism and which we know so little about was incredibly moving. But to be listening to this next to your healthy 18 year old son, who suffered as a young child from such severe and mysterious health problems that at one point they misdiagnosed him with cystic fibrosis, this was life sending me a marker.
I wanted to tell Steve that story when I introduced him to my son later that night but due to the hour and sensing the condition of the people who had just spent the last 3 plus hours pouring everything they got out for us, for once I had the good sense to keep my big mouth shut.
I am pissed that I forgot to tell Steve that the whole time we were driving to the show, some four plus hours, I was working out an imaginary set list in my head. With God and my boy as witness, I said several times, my favorite song of Earle’s is an obscure classic called “Nothin’ But You” which was aptly covered by Mark Wenner and the Nighthawks way back in the mid 80’s but that I was unaware of Steve recording it . (I now know it was originally on Steve’s 1982 EP Pink & Black on Epic.) Well let me tell you, my son now knows what it must have been like to be at one of the early Beatles concerts the way I went nuts when he and the band launched into what else, Nobody But You / Continental Trailways Blues as the second to the last encore only to raise it up one more notch, if that was possible, ending with a full tilt version of “The Revolution Starts Now”. Music with a Message Indeed!!!
I will never forget when August and I were walking up the aisle a good 10-15 minutes after the show had ended and making eye contact with a couple of fans in one of the last rows of the main floor, still sitting in awe, in their seats and mouthing at each other and us “Was that the best f____king concert you have ever seen!” We could only nod our heads in agreement.