Steve Earle & The Dukes concluded their month-long UK tour at London’s Barbican Centre. Though acoustically excellent and a venue Earle and others like him have used, it has an impersonal air. However, that was soon dispelled by The Mastersons, the two Dukes who, as usual, opened the show. Chris Masterson and wife Eleanor Whitmore are superb artists in their own right and well worth seeing on their own. As Masterson said, “we have thirty minutes to make you love us”. Most of the almost full hall loved them already and any others had no reason not to 30 minutes later.
In single file Steve Earle & The Dukes made their way through the shadows to their instruments. You wouldn’t mess with this bunch; their hats were pulled down low and only Whitmore wore anything colourful. Earle’s magnificent bandana had an almost badge of honour look. There was no chat, they went straight into six songs from last year’s So You Wannabe An Outlaw. The opening chords of the first song were a statement of intent, “So you wanna be an outlaw, better take it from me/ Living on the highway, ain’t everything it’s supposed to be/ Everybody reckons that they wanna be free/Ain’t nobody wants to be alone”. And if this guy says so it must be true.
The only break came in the intro to ‘The Firebreak Line’ where Earle spat his contempt for the rich folks whose palatial residences had been burnt to a cinder by the wildfires. “They should never have built them there in the first place”. That certainly gave the song added heat, particularly when he, Masterson, and bassist Kelley Looney marched together to the edge of the stage. It was like watching the fire itself approach. The bleak ‘News From Colorado’ was given added intensity by Whitmore’s fiddle and Ricky Ray Jackson’s pedal steel.
There was less chat between songs this time. Earle and the Dukes let the music talk, first doing the new record proud then they pulled together a long succession of classic songs into what would make a memorable live album set.
It was way back to Guitar Town for ‘My Old Friend the Blues’, ‘Someday’, and ‘Guitar Town’. From a year later ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ sounded just as good. Earle pretty much summed up his own philosophy in his intro to ‘Jerusalem’. Using his own experience as an example he stressed his fundamental belief that nobody is beyond redemption, a point so perfectly illustrated in ‘Hard Core Troubadour’, “He’s the last of the all night, do right/ Hey Rosalita won’t you come out tonight/ He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours”.
‘Johnny Come Lately’ and ‘The Galway Girl’ are great examples of Earle the story-telling troubadour. ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘Taneytown’ were pure power. Whichever end of his range Earle’s commitment was as sincere as the first time.
As always, Earle was profuse in his thanks to his band. Bassist Kelley Looney has been a Duke for thirty years and to show he only seeks the best, “where do you get the best pedal steel player? Austin, Texas, where I found Ricky Ray Jackson”. His appreciation of The Mastersons came earlier when he introduced their opening set. Brad Pemberton kept the whole band as tight as one of his drums.
Earle went through the power and storytelling axis once again. He returned to Outlaw for a thumping ‘Fixin’ To Die’ finishing with perhaps a strange choice, ‘Hey Joe’. Then they were gone briefly coming back for the harsh tales of the Civil War in ’Dixieland’ and ‘Bem McCulloch’.
The Dukes exited once again leaving Earle strumming lightly as he set out his plans. After further touring in the US then beach with son John Henry, he said he will record an album of Guy Clark songs. “Because once I get to the other side he’d kill me if I didn’t after doing the Townes album”. Earle said that people had been surprised that So You Wannabe An Outlaw hadn’t been more political. That’s because most of it had been written by the time Trump was elected. Until then “we all thought it couldn’t happen”. The next record will be political, but Earle turned a lot more philosophical than perhaps anticipated. He said a lot of “people like us” had voted for Trump because they felt unrepresented. After Sanders dropped out then what? Instead of lambasting everything that’s happened since, Earle looked ahead and spoke of a need for kindness, what people should aspire to, all in the hope that things can get better. It was the most impressive call to arms I’ve heard from Steve Earle.
With that he went into ‘The Girl on The Mountain” as the band joined him. Nothing could follow that.
Of his shows over the past few years this one best balanced raw power with his more lyrical side. In 1986 Earle said, “I have a low tolerance for mediocrity in music and life. I’m into pain and joy and the in-between doesn’t interest me”. At 63 he has not abandoned this maxim but could a new chapter as an even deeper thinker and perceptive observer be opening for the Hardcore Troubadour?