Steve Earle & The Dukes Live at the O2 Institute, Birmingham, UK
Both of my regular readers will know that I consider Steve Earle a giant of modern music. It’s been too long (going on three years) since his winding, everlasting tour last hit Britain, and if I had the means I would have gone to every one of these shows, but I only made it to Birmingham – “our last night in England,” quipped Steve (they were to reach London the following evening). Not sure the Birmingham audience really appreciated the joke, but Steve can ride out a moment or two of local unease where he has to.
The thing that doesn’t show up on paper about Steve Earle is his consummate professionalism. It’s an odd quality to attribute to a man who is probably still most famous for a thoroughly wholehearted heroin addiction in the 1980s and ’90s, with matching bankruptcies, scandals, indictments, and a stint in prison followed by enforced rehabilitation, not to mention a string of failed marriages (seven to date). I could get distracted now and start talking about how it’s a disgrace that these things should be what he’s best known for, being that giant of music I was talking about; or I could talk about creativity and energy and how brilliant artists so often fall down a tragic rabbit hole; but actually my point is that, except for the very few years where Steve Earle was sitting self-destructing with his customary energy on his personal rock bottom, immediately prior to his imprisonment – apart from those few years, this has always been a man who treated his audiences as a professional does. He might not always have known where he was but he always realized his responsibility to the people who had paid in.
And he still does. He’s 63 now; he made his first record 32 years ago and he’d already been in the game for over a decade by then. You would think he would be tired. But this is a man so full of beans that making mostly superb records, taking drugs, recovering from taking drugs and having intense and disastrous relationships cannot properly fill the days. This is, after all, still the man who wrote the very anthem of restlessness, ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ (sample lyric: ‘Saint Peter said, “Come on in boy, you’re finally home.” I said, “No thanks, Pete, I’ll just be moving along.”’)
So, Steve has occupied all his spare time by, you know, writing a novel and a book of short stories, acting in paltry and unimportant TV programmes like The Wire and Treme, flirting with musical theater, campaigning against the death penalty, and annoying people by writing songs about politics. Proper good ones. “John Walker’s Blues” (from the perspective of John Walker Lindh, a bare year after 9/11) is perhaps the most inflammatory; it certainly drew some opprobrium. But Steve Earle thrives on opprobrium. It is, as they say, his jam. He makes converts too, even if some of them probably don’t last beyond the end of the gig. Before he came on, some good old boys standing behind us had been discussing Ukip with a measure of approval; later when Steve, introducing “Jerusalem,” intoned “I believe in love … I don’t believe in borders,” the place erupted in whoops of encouragement. Hey, I believe it’s fine to follow a leader as long as they’re taking you the right way.
And the tour. The tour never ends. Sometimes he says it has to go on because of all those ex-wives and kids. But if that were the case wouldn’t you be able to see boredom on his face? Wouldn’t his seasoned, not to say weathered, band, The Dukes, be looking pissed off at the prospect of playing to a bunch of middle-aged Brummies – playing “Copperhead Road” for the millionth time while old fat men in black leather jackets bounce up and down on their insteps? No. Because they’re professionals. And you can rely on getting a good two hours of full-on brilliance out of them, every time.
Ah, The Dukes. Sometimes The Dukes and Duchesses (though that was mainly when Earle was still married to Allison Moorer and sometimes she joined him onstage or in the studio). Most of them are from Texas. Kelly Looney, on the bass, has been with Earle for 30 years. The drummer (Brad Pemberton) and the slide guitarist (Ricky Ray Jackson) are considerably newer additions but look thoroughly at home, and sound it too. Then there are The Mastersons – Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore – who ply their guitars and fiddle for The Dukes but who are an act in themselves and who this night were Steve’s support and warm up. They are obviously outrageously talented musicians, and I can’t help but have a lot of time for a married duo who are both rocking double denim – black for Chris, blue for Eleanor. Teamed with sensible footwear plus a felt cowboy hat and ruby lipstick (the last two only in Eleanor’s case; Chris tops his denim indulgence off with platinum Tom Petty hair). A couple of good tunes, too. And we would all be very much the poorer throughout the whole show without Whitmore’s curtly dulcet vocals and insistent fiddling and Masterson’s screaming guitar solos.
I suppose it probably helps, if you’re on the Tour Which Lasts Forever, to have such a plethora of material to resurrect. They probably don’t play the same songs every time. I mean, obviously they play some of them every time, literally (“Copperhead Road,” “Guitar Town,” “Someday,” “Galway Girl”); but apart from the real standards and apart from whichever album they’re currently touring (So You Wannabe An Outlaw at the moment), they can mix it up. And boy do they. On this night the material came from 12 different studio albums. Earle’s built himself some room over the years.
This policy means that you always get some treats you aren’t expecting. Last time I saw Steve Earle and The Dukes, nearly three years ago, they played some bluesy back-catalog crackers like “I Thought You Should Know” (from The Revolution Starts Now, Bernie Sanders’ favorite Earle tune) because they were touring Terraplane, Earle’s blues album (arguably the best record he’s ever made; I insist you buy it). This time we got “Ben McCulloch,” one of his narrative Civil War numbers. It’s a beauty. Gives me tingles. God, I appreciate an artist who writes brilliant songs about the American Civil War; why aren’t there more of them?
Look, I suppose what I’m trying to get across in perhaps too many words is that Steve Earle is a GIANT. My companion says he can’t imagine there’s a better gig out there. There are a lot of men and some women in their sixties who are still touring but most of them – all of them – are lacking the excellent, interesting, challenging, often sublime back catalog Earle samples so airily. And a lot of them who do have the occasional song which stands the test of time are playing Twickenham Stadium, or Hyde Park, or Blenheim Palace, with prices to match, and the cynic in me says phoning in their performances. Earle gives his all to a few hundred people in the sticky-floored Birmingham O2 Institute, and his all is SO MUCH.
Well, they’re off to London tonight, and after that back to the States to – guess what – tour some more. In late August they’ll have a break, to record an album of Guy Clark covers – Earle says, laughing, that he can’t not, since he “did the Townes record” (Townes by Steve Earle won a Grammy in 2009). Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, two of the most legendary songwriters in country/folk music, were both Texans like Earle and famously were his mentors in his youth (in different ways. Guy would talk to him about craft. Townes just told him to go and read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee).
After the Guy Clark album they’ll tour some more. Then they’ll record Earle’s riposte to Donald Trump. Sheesh. Can’t even imagine what that’s going to sound like. Then I expect they’ll tour some more.
The title track from Guitar Town, Earle’s first album, which came out in 1986 and made him a massive star (the kind who can afford to have heroin for all three meals), is one of the songs he always, always plays. I can’t imagine he’s done more than a handful of gigs since the 1980s without playing it. It contains the lines, “Hey, pretty baby, won’t you hold me tight – we’re loadin’ up and rollin’ out of here tonight. One of these days I’m gonna settle down, and take you back with me to the Guitar Town.”
I hope nobody was ever silly enough to believe that.
So You Wannabe An Outlaw
Lookin’ For A Woman
Fire Break Line
Walkin’ in LA
News From Colorado
My Old Friend The Blues
I Ain’t Ever Satisfied
Still In Love With You
You’re The Best Lover I’ve Ever Had
Johnny Come Lately
Acquainted With The Wind
The Week Of Living Dangerously
If Mama Coulda Seen Me
Fixin’ To Die
Girl Up On The Mountain