Steve Earle & The Dukes with the Mastersons – Massey Hall (Toronto, ON – Oct. 29, 2013)
Singing for the sake of the song: Steve Earle & his Dukes bring The Low Highway to Toronto
Beyond fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle’s biggest influences are Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. These troubadours traveled America’s low highway before him making keen observations of life and penning pocketfuls of storied songs. Earle learned well. For more than 30 years, he’s trod a similar path. He’s written award-winning songs that linger just as long. He’s now a mentor for a future generation of musicians.
Last night in Toronto the weathered and wizened hardcore troubadour — with a rock ‘n’ roll heart — shared many of his timeless tunes. As hoots and hollers rained from the rafters, Earle introduced The Mastersons, one of his disciples, who set the tone. The Lone Star State duo features Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson; their passionate performance showed they are fast learners.
“We’ve got 30 minutes to make you guys love us!” Masterson said.
With deep harmonies and spirited playing, love them Massey Hall concertgoers did. Highlights included: “Money” and the title track “Birds Fly South”from their debut disc released this past April on New West Records.
The Mastersons closed their short set with an unreleased song called: “Good Luck Charm.” They said this tune will be part of a record they plan to make in LA once this tour ends. With a catchy chorus, little encouragement was required to get the audience to sing and clap along.
Despite scalpers on Shuter Street outside Massey Hall stating any extra floor seats they had for sale were only good for wallpaper, the show was a near sell-out.
Shortly before 9 p.m., Earle and his Dukes took the stage. The Mastersons joined him, along with drummer Will Rigby and bassist Kelly Looney. The band kicked off the set with “The Low Highway” – the poignant and poetic title cut from his latest record.
The rest of the show mixed songs old and new. One of the highlights from the new record was the touching ballad “Remember Me.” Earle prefaced this song with a story about his three-year-old autistic son John Henry and the need for everyone to stand up and take notice of the rise of this medical condition. Later, the musician played a “Pocket Full of Rain” on piano, saying it was the first composition he had ever recorded on this instrument. “Calico Country” a hard-driving, rhythmic ride on the record, sounded even more energetic live.
From El Corazon there was “Taneytown.” From I Feel Alright: “Hard Core Troubadour,” “Billy and Bonnie,” and “You’re Still Standing There,” where Whitmore stood in admirably for Lucinda Williams, who originally sang this duet on this record from 1996.
The early classic “Copperhead Road” came mid-set and inspired one fan to run down the centre aisle on the floor. He pumped his fists in the air and returned to his seat before security paid any attention.
A little later, Earle introduced the rest of the Dukes. He gave each musician time to shine and share one of their songs.
Ever political, Earle kept his between-song sermons short, but still left the audience with a lot to ponder.
From the opening song to the final encore, a smile rarely left Earle’s face. The beer-swilling crowd, mainly middle-aged males, and couples, who have been there for all the twists and turns in the songwriters’ journey, shouted requests, swayed to the musician’s intoxicating rhythms, and sang along.
For the second-last encore, Earle and his Dukes closed this Americana jam session with a nod to Levon Helm — one of the genre’s trailblazers. “Rag Mama Rag,” was well-chosen since Helm and the rest of The Band got their start just up the street from Massey Hall in the 1960s as Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band at the long since closed The Coq d’Or.
Approaching 60, Earle is an Americana elder statesman. These days he drinks water instead of whiskey. Regardless what fuels his muse, this show proved though his long wispy beard is now Gandalf grey, his passion for the music remains forever young. And, like his fellow Texan and long-time gone amigo Van Zandt once poetically-penned, he still sings for the sake of the song.