Steve Earle is really good at his job. Even if he hadn’t reminded us about three times during the course of his set, we would have known. He brings an air of professionalism, comfort, and yes - work - to the stage. “I’m sure that this is what I was put here to do, and I’m pretty good at it.” he said during an extended soliloquy over the intro to his last song. “I’ve fucked up pretty much everything else I’ve ever done.” he admitted, adding “I’m a pretty good dad.” as an afterthought.
He’s become a bit of a polarizing figure over the years. His fans love his dedication to songwriting, his outspoken politics, and the history around his descent into heroin addiction, resulting in arrests and jail time, and ultimately his recovery and his subsequent return to the stage as one of the most respected and in-demand statesmen of the Americana music scene. There’s also the actor (great smaller roles on HBO’s Treme and The Wire) and the author (Doghouse Roses), adding to the resume of one of America’s greatest musical treasures.
His detractors have a hard time stomaching his intense southern-drawl-delivery, and there is some dichotomy in a hillbilly guitar player from Texas, then Nashville, taking such a hard-left political stance in an industry that generally leans the other way. No doubt many bailed ship when he sobered up and took a more visible place on the soapbox, these days set up right in the heart of liberal Manhattan.
Any naysayers seemed far away at The Fillmore last Thursday night. More often than not a general admission venue, it was a different setting, with folding chairs set up and no standing room. It was clearly an older, mellower crowd, in stark contrast to most of the other shows I’ve seen there. It seemed pleasant and safe, lacking that punk-rock tension I am so familiar with at shows. (Is that a positive?) All things considered, I was open to and happy for the change, and settled in comfortably to enjoy the show.
At 8 pm sharp, Earle came out to introduce the duo of Chris Masterson and his wife Elanor Whitmore - collectively The Mastersons - followed by 30 minutes of their folkrock/americana. The sound was rich & warm and surprisingly full for the 2-piece. as they focused mostly on their new album “Transient Lullaby.” Chris has a distinctive delivery that’s reminiscent of Gary Louris of the Jayhawks (I imagine he tires of hearing that). Elanor’s beautiful harmonies and leads, accompanied by her fiddle playing, blend well with Chris’ voice and guitar, creating a rich depth. They have great songs and an undeniable chemistry.
Exactly 30 minutes later, they came back out for their day jobs as members of The Dukes, with their boss right behind, dressed in jeans and a leather vest, looking more fit and healthy than I’ve seen him, and playing a baby-blue Telecaster Deluxe. They kicked right into the title track of his latest album “So You Wanna be an Outlaw,” an homage to the great country albums of the early-to-mid 70s, specifically the classic “Honky-Tonk Heroes” record by Waylon Jennings. Energy was high and there were smiles all around as he was clearly taking an early stock of the audience, the room, and the sound bouncing around.
The majority of the set was focused on the newer material, which is really strong and well-suited for the seated crowd. "News from Colorado" was an early standout, and one of my favorites from the album. He snuck his first single, "Guitar Town" in there early, with Masterson easily handling the vintage Nashville licks fans have grown accustomed to since it was a top-10 hit in 1986. At about the mid-point, the triple whammy of Copperhead Road > Tanneytown > Hardcore Troubadour was unleashed to the delight of the crowd, who were now on their feet. For any newbies, Copperhead Road is probably his best-known song, and like Tanneytown, a great visual narrative that is backed by gritty guitar work and ascending dramatic delivery. If you’re looking, both are great places to start.
When you walk into a Steve Earle show, you know going in that the music isn’t the only thing you’re going to get. He has something to say, and he’ll make damn sure he gets it out. His banter can be dark & self-assessing or charged & political, and often delivered with a dry, humorous punchline. He touched on everything from the hurricanes, earthquakes and fires we’re seeing in North America, to the “orangutan” we elected as president last November, to his realization that he’s ultimately a romantic in every sense of the word. It got particularly deep and personal as he pondered the recent end of his seventh marriage and how he may eventually have to face the fact that there just might not be someone out there for everyone. If it came across like a therapy session, the audience was right there on the couch with him, enjoying the revealing look into the head that wrote all those great songs.
Yeah, Steve Earle is really good at his job, and there was a certain feeling that he was at work during the show, but not in the way some miserable rock stars obviously phone it in and just want to get it over with. He treats it like work, with a full comprehension around the expectations of the product he’s being paid to deliver. But he loves this job, and never for one moment seemed to be going through the motions. He came across as sincere, gracious and engaged, focused and determined. His work ethic resulted in a quality couple hours of great art, and we walked away feeling thoroughly fulfilled. Seeing someone like Steve Earle, who is 30+ years into a music career, and enjoying the new stuff as much as the old stuff, and witnessing a master at his craft, is a gift. Just pro in every way.
Jeremy Porter lives near Detroit and fronts the rock and roll band Jeremy Porter And The Tucos. Follow them on Facebook to read his road-blog chronicling their adventures and see his photo series documenting the disgusting bathrooms in the dives they play. He's a whiskey snob, an unapologetic fan of "good" metal, and couldn't really care less about the UofM - OSU rivalry since he once saw The Stones at the Horseshoe. Still, go blue.