The last few times Steve Earle has been around I’ve missed him for one reason or another. I didn’t see anything about this show until two days before and I was able to score the last ticket in the sold-out center orchestra, right in front of the soundboard.
Normally the floor at the Capitol Theatre is general admission and seatless but I guess they were counting on an older crowd. As Earle joked later he was getting tired of looking out into the audience and seeing that half the audience looked like him. That’s why he liked to sing his old love songs – to remember who he once was. But there were also a lot of younger couples there – most of them seemed to be there for the opener Robert Earl Keen. In fact the couple next to me left after his set. Both Earle and Keen were performing solo acoustic and, of course, for the encore they performed together.
Texas singer/songwriters performing acoustically. Comfy chair. Stadium seating. Doesn’t get much better than that.
For the ride up to the Capitol Theatre I got to Grand Central early enough that I could pick almost any seat I wanted. Most of the people were sitting in what I thought was backwards on the Metro North train but I thought, “Who would purposely choose to sit backwards?” So I sat facing the same way and ended up riding backwards because by the time train left it was too crowded to change my seat.
The music playing while we waited for Robert Earl Keen was Beatles, Sly Stone, Paul Simon, and other music from the 60s and 70s. I had missed Keen when he played ACL a few years back. rtb had said he was too country for her tastes and I wanted to hear him for myself. Many of his songs have been recorded by a lot Nashville artists. He is definitely one of the great Texas songwriters and one of the first artists to be called Americana. He started off with some Aggie jokes (not favorable to Aggies, even though he is one). Then he played “The Front Porch Song” about his then-landlord. He had played the song for fellow Aggie Lyle Lovett, who came back a few weeks later having added some things to the song. Both have recorded the song. Keen is a wonderful storyteller and most of the stories involve drinking and ending up in strange places. Each of the songs is a story itself like “Corpus Christi Bay.” He did a song about a New Mexico dive where the green room was the alley outside – the song was all story with no rhymes. Another story was about how Steve Earle told Keen he had to leave Austin and go to Nashville. So Keen and his wife went to Nashville and Keen couldn’t find any work and finally in a Chinese restaurant he had a nervous breakdown. “Then Came Lo Mein” is one of the funniest nervous breakdown songs you’ll ever hear. Keen is most famous for “The Road Goes On Forever,” which is how he ended his set. But before that song he did played the song he wrote about Toby Keith called “The Road Goes On and On.” Keith “wrote” a song called “Bullets in the Gun” that steals the music and some words from “The Road Goes on Forever.” Since many people have covered that song, Keith could have just covered it. Instead he ripped off Keen and Keen decided on getting back at him by song instead of by legal means. You can read about it here and listen to all three songs.
Waiting for Steve Earle we heard the Everly Brothers, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger. I was wondering if Earle was going to do anything in honor of Pete and the first song he played was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” While the song sounded familiar at the same time Earle managed to make it his own and ended with, “See ya when I get there, Pete.” He played the songs that people had come to hear like “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” and “My Old Friend the Blues.” He did songs for lost loves – “for what’s her name, wherever she is” – and when he changed the harmonica for the next song he said, “Same girl. Different harmonica.” He also sang “Every Part of Me” that has the lyric “I can’t promise anything except that my last breath will bear your name,” which is making me cry all over again. Then he played “Valentine’s Day” a song he wrote when he was only three months out of jail and couldn’t get a driver’s license and it was February 13th. He also performed “The Devi’s Right Hand,” which he recorded three times. He wrote the song in the 1970s and it was on his first album in the 1980s, which was shelved after the record company dropped him. Then he recorded it again for third album with his new label. Then they asked him to record it again for Brokeback Mountain, which takes place in the 1970s and that is his favorite version of the song. Earle said the song was considered a gun control song and at the time he wrote it he owned a trailer full of guns. It wasn’t until his teenage son Justin stole a gun from him that Earle got rid of all his guns. Yes, he told that story again also, same details but just slightly different so it doesn’t sound rehearsed.
The most touching part of the night came when Earle spoke about his 3-year-old son John Henry. Since Earle is 59 he said that makes him an optimist. John Henry was diagnosed with autism when he was 2yo. They researched every facility available and decided that NYC (where they were already living) was the best place for him. Earle said that after one year of school John Henry now looks you in the eye. And he speaks a different language but Earle will just have to learn it.
For the encore Earle and Keen both came out and they performed a Townes Van Zandt song and then an Earle song that Keen had covered.
Steve Earle is doing a Wednesday residency at City Winery in NYC in February. They will be all request shows.
Unfortunately I didn’t get any great shots of them since the lights made them both look like big white blobs.
By Carene Lydia Lopez