Returning to one of his “favorite places to play” — the Barrymore Theater in Madison, WI — a jovial and truly inspired Steve Earle turned a night dedicated to the blues into a joyous occasion that will be fondly remembered by all those in attendance.
America’s most interesting songwriter brought along his crack band, consisting of his long-time rhythm section Kelly Looney on upright and electric bass, and Will Rigby on drums. He also had the incredibly talented duo of Eleanor Whitmore on acoustic and electric guitars, violin, keyboards, and vocals, and her husband — the country’s most versatile, tasteful, lead-playing guitar genius — Chris Masterson on vocals, acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitars. The Mastersons played their own shimmering, beautiful opening set. And, together with the night’s headliner, this made over three hours of blues music that showcased Earle’s mastery of the genre from all periods of his career.
Kicking off the night with several tracks off his new album, Terraplane, Earle opened with “Baby,” followed by “Your the Best Lover That I’ve Ever Had.” Establishing his blues cred early in the evening, Earle boasted of being fortunate enough to have seen blues greats Mance Libscomb and Lightning Hopkins before playing “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now.” At one point, Earle noted that he and the Mastersons were from Texas, home of many blues greats, and that could be very intimidating to a young musician. He quipped, “As far as I know there’s not a ‘New York shuffle,’ there’s not a ‘Los Angeles shuffle.’ There’s a ‘Chicago shuffle,’ and there’s a ‘Texas shuffle.”
Along the way, a downright chatty Earle took the time to put his songs into context. He reminded audience members that this was not his first foray into the blues before playing old chestnuts like “My Old Friend the Blues,” which was one of many songs that night during which Chris Masterson’s playing made me take notice. He makes a Telecaster sound just like a pedal steel guitar. Earle and the Dukes followed with one of the night’s standouts, reaching back to the Guitar Town LP and a powerful performance of “Someday,” complete with another head-turning performance by Mr. Masterson. Earle told the audience that he knew exactly where he was when he wrote the next song, a poignant version of “Goodbye,” because it was the first song he wrote sober.
He acknowledged his recent divorce, which served as the inspiration for doing a “blues” album. “The only people who come out better from a divorce is the lawyers,” he quipped. Then added, “I wonder what happens when lawyers divorce. That must be really ugly.” For a guy who has seen his share of marital breakups, surprisingly his comments, like his songs, were never mean or bitter; just brutally honest with a touch of humor — the hallmark of any songwriter worth a damn.
Later in the show, Earle announced that he was going to play a segment for the girls because he did not want to attract an audience of hairy bearded guys like himself. He added, self-deprecatingly, that when he looks in the mirror these days he does not see a 24 year old man looking back but rather some old, fat guy who looks alot like Alan Ginsburg. He said he was honored to have had Ginsburg as a guest in his apartment once, and then played a beautiful version of “Sparkle and Shine,” followed by the always riveting “I Thought You Should Know.”
Of course, he had to throw in the obligatory “Copperhead Road.” But, for a change, he did it fairly early in the show. This set up the after-song reference to that part of his fan base stuck in the past, which led to the punch line: “That last one was for those of you who need to get home early because you’re on probation or electric home monitoring. The rest of you stick around because we have a lot more to do.”
Another highlight was his ferocious version of the Chester Burnett classic “44 Blues,” that had Earle channeling the Wolf both on vocals and with some nasty harmonica. Masterson played slide on that one like the great Lowell George. Always the respectful one, Earle paid tribute to the late King of the Blues, B.B., before segueing into a rip-snorting electric blues finale. That included a refreshing, interesting version of “Hey Joe,” thanks to Masterson’s guitar.
The encores were broken up with a beautiful cover of what a fellow concert-goer — who was kind enough to let me take a picture of the official set list — said was a Donovan song. That got me thinking if it was the same Donovan number he referred to in a recent interview with Mother Jones, whom he told that the song got him kicked out of his first blues band at the age of 13.
Nonetheless, the crowd just wouldn’t let the band leave, summoning them back for more. This time we got a real treat — a brand new protest song that they played for the second time ever. Earle noted that they plan to release the song as a single this week: “Mississippi Take It Down.” The tune proves why he is the best songwriter out there. It is a great song that tells the Governor and people of Mississippi that it is time to retire the Confederate Stars and Bars as part of their state flag. In light of the debate set for this week in the Mississippi legislature, this one is sure to garner attention and sales.
Next up was the soon-to-be-election-year call to arms, the “Revolution Starts Now.” Then the band ended with a version of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” that had Will Rigby using two sticks in one hand, bashing out the cymbals like Nick the Bruiser.
Donovan song: There is a Mountain
Mississippi Take It Down
Down the Road I go
The Revolution Starts Now
This is the second time that my son and I have made what now can only be described as a pilgrimage from Minneapolis to Madison to see Steve Earle & the Dukes with the Mastersons at the charmingly friendly and funky Barrymore Theater. Because we had been listening to Terraplane since it came out and read Earle’s recent interviews, we knew this tour, like the album, was going to be about the blues. Our running joke this trip was that, “we were on a mission from God.”
On our first trip almost two years ago to the day, we fell in love with Madison — a progressive jewel of a city in a state that, sadly, remains under the control of a failed regime, whose state executive has compared his own public employees to ISIS fighters. Earle and the Dukes share an admiration and respect for the oppressed working class citizens of Madison and the State of Wisconsin, and by the response he gets at their shows in Madison, you can tell the feeling is mutual.
As anyone who read my review of the 2013 show knows, we held that performance in such high regard, we thought it would be impossible to match. We had prepared ourselves for a letdown this time. But, little did we know that Steve Earle & the Dukes had other plans.