Steve Earle: Town Hall 13 September 2011

Well if I ever wondered where Justin Townes Earle gets his charisma from I need not look any further than Steve Earle. How I’ve gone all this time not seeing Steve perform is a mystery – raised in Texas, songwriter in Nashville in the 1970s whose mentors are Guy Clarke and Townes Van Zandt, roots/rock music performer in the 1980s, storyteller, author, actor, political activist, an addiction to heroin that kept him from music for years and a clean and sober comeback – this is the kind of artist I adore. Steve Earle with the Dukes (and Duchesses) featuring Allison Moorer are touring and were playing two nights in his adopted hometown of NYC. Moorer is Steve’s sixth wife (he’s been married seven times – twice to the same woman) and from the looks of them together on stage this marriage looks like a keeper.

The first night was at Town Hall and the second at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. A no-brainer for me because given the opportunity to sit, I will sit. Town Hall is an intimate theater, perfect for folk and jazz with not a single bad seat. The theater wasn’t full and that was a shame. I don’t know what the turnout was at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, but I hope he had a good crowd there.

The vocals didn’t sound good at the start of the show but improved a bit into the first set. Steve and Allison had their own guitar tech (the rest of the band had to fend for themselves) and there was one instance when Steve could not get sound out of a guitar and finally the tech went onstage and pressed the pedals in the correct order for him and you could see Steve and others in the band smiling.

Steve was quiet at the start but then began to tell stories. Some stories about the songs. Many stories about political causes. The political stories were never preachy. Not that it mattered because he was talking to a room full of people who felt the same way he did. Near the start he talked about how the evening was going to progress. “And it will progress. Because we are all progressives.” When he talked about teacher’s salaries and they should be paid more – which came up in the middle of a story of how he had an eighth grade education and only went to school for a while in ninth grade and how English was not one of his best subjects but that could be because the HS football coach was also the English teacher and being self-taught and a book about the Third Crusade – there was a huge applause and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that half the audience were teachers who lived on the Upper West Side. Another story was about the coal miners striking in the 1970s and how they were the last trade union to be broken because they didn’t get any support. Or, after a song about NYC, about seeing a red tail hawk in Washington Square Park and that the reason we now see so many raptors that a short time ago were almost extinct is because we no longer use DDT and that sometimes one act can make great changes.

For me, the best story was when he performed “The Devil’s Right Hand.” He wrote the song in the 1970s before he had a record deal. Then in the 1980s he included it on an album, which the record company dropped. He re-recorded it for another album in the 1980s and that was his favorite version. Until they asked him to contribute a song to Brokeback Mountain and it had to sound like a song from the 1970s (it would be playing on a jukebox), so he went back to close to the original version. But that’s not the story that I liked so much. When he first performed the song everyone told him it was a gun-control song and he said it wasn’t. He owned an arsenal – he grew up in Texas and hunted and fished. He was also a hippie and protested against the Vietnam War and didn’t see any problem with all that. After he got out of jail and was now clean and sober – “In fact I am sober 17 years today. Well his mother handed a wild 14-year-old son to me. You may have met him. I didn’t know what to do with him. I’d only been sober for four and half months. He took a gun that I kept under the mattress. He knew it was there. I asked him to return it. I begged and pleaded. I searched his room. I searched the whole house. I called my brother and we strip-searched him. I decided that if I couldn’t get the gun from him then he’d have to be somewhere the gun wasn’t. My brother and I put him in the car – it was like trying to put a live deer in the trunk – and took him to boot camp. I’m not proud of this. They probably used the boys for slave labor. Well Justin isn’t stupid. It was January and at 1:00am I got a phone call telling me where he’d hidden the gun. And now it is a gun-control song. I don’t have a loaded weapon in my house. Some would call it flip-flopping. I call it a profound experience and changing your mind.”

And here’s Steve telling the story at another concert:

Steve also sang “This City,” which is a song he wrote for his character, Harley, on Treme. He was asked to write song that the street musician would have written in 2005. And he played it on Harley’s guitar (This Machine Floats). With that song came another story. In rebuilding New Orleans, the plan was to get rid of the poor people. And in New Orleans a lot of musicians are poor people. Without musicians it wouldn’t be New Orleans. But the financial crisis happened and all the plans had to be dropped.

The evening started with roots-style music and then there was bluegrass and then pure rock. We heard songs from the new cd and also “Someday,” “Guitar Town,” “Union Man,” and “The Mountain.” Encore covers were “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” and “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Everyone in the band got a chance to sing lead on one song with Allison singing lead on three songs – just before the break. She sang a lullaby she sings to their 17-month-old son, who is accompanying them on the tour, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Steve and Allison also did two duets. One was “Every Part of Me.” I didn’t catch the name of bass player or drummer (both fantastic) but the other couple in the band is The Mastersons – Chris Masterson (an Elvis Costello lookalike) on guitar, pedal steel, mandolin and Eleanor Whitmore Masterson on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, who were also fantastic players. Allison played piano, accordion, and guitar also.

There’s an online review where the author thinks that Steve was preachy and pretentious and the band sucked because it’s not the same people he used to tour with. I know some people left at intermission but it was a long show (three hours) and it was an older crowd. I don’t have memories of previous shows to compare this to but, for me, this show was damn near perfect.

By Carene Lydia Lopez