John Henry’s Friends: City Winery 4 December 2016

This is now an annual event since this is the second year that Steve Earle is putting on this show to raise money for the Keswell School (formerly known as the McCarton School) for children and young adults with autism, which Earle’s son, John Henry, attends. The actual show would be the next night at Town Hall (which I also attended) and the show at City Winery was a sort of open rehearsal. There’s also a VIP dinner for those who paid for it – when I went down to the ladies’ room I saw Earle and others eating in the Barrel Room.

There was a reserved sign at my table so I was hoping that someone special would be sitting there but just regular people like me were at the table. For dinner I had the sweet potato soup and the salmon special, both of which were very good. While waiting for the show I was watching Earle’s roadies and sound guy using their walkie-talkies like this was some stadium or even auditorium show. The place isn’t that big and normally you don’t need so many people but I guess with changing the stage for different artists there has to be some more organization. (Not that shows at City Winery are unorganized.)

Earle came out and greeted us with, “Good evening, winos.” He said he uses that greeting every time he plays City Winery (he performed the first weekend they opened) and emphasized that we don’t want him to have any wine. He explained that this was a rehearsal show so that they could fuck it up before the show tomorrow. He also talked about the Keswell School and how good it’s been for his son. John Henry had been verbal early on and then stopped talking. He was diagnosed at 19 months old and recently, at six years old, said three words in five days. John Henry also receives music therapy at the school. Before he stopped speaking, music was very important to him. He picked up the drumsticks backstage at one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles. The next day Helm sent a drum kit over to Earle’s house for John Henry. When John Henry stopped talking the musical stuff went away but now he’s been downloading music onto his iPad. He discovered a video of his father and he likes Will.I.Am and Justin Bieber.

Earle said that NYC has the best resources for people with autism, that if you know one person with autism then you know one person with autism, that the teacher to student ratio at the school is 1:1, and they have students from 3 to 21 years old. The school didn’t take in enough tuition to cover their expenses when John Henry was three and four years old, so last year Earle had the first concert, which raised $55,000 and the school broke even for the first time. Earle said that he needs help with paying the tuition – he makes really good money but he’s been married too many times (seven times to six women) to be rich. For parents who don’t make really good money, they have to litigate to get the resources that they are legally entitled to because places are underfunded because people always want their taxes cut.


First up was Shawn Colvin, who started solo on acoustic guitar with Paul Westerberg’s “Even Here We Are.” Colvin and Earle had recorded an album together and Earle joined her to do songs from that album and songs of their own. They performed “Come What May” on acoustic guitars. Earle also played harmonica on some songs. Then they both did Earle’s “Burnin’ It Down,” a quiet and subversive song. Whenever I watch Earle, I always think about Jack because he reminds me so much of him. And when I remember how much Jack wanted to be a musician it makes me cry. Colvin said she had her own arson song. While Earle’s songs cover everything, Colvin writes mostly break-up songs and Earle called this “the ultimate break-up song.” Earle stepped up to the mic and said, “It’s a fucking murder ballad.” The song is “Sunny Came Home.” For this Earle played the octave mandolin (bouzouki). During the song, Colvin got a funny look on her face and she was singing a little weird and afterwards she said she had swallowed a bug or something. Then they performed Colvin’s “Diamond in the Rough,” which is also the name of her autobiography. Earle switched the regular mandolin and said he had produced an album for David Broza (the Bruce Springsteen of Israel). Broza said he wanted to make an album with half Israeli and half Palestinian musicians and Earle couldn’t pass that up. Earle and Colvin’s writing songs together came very easily, and he came up with the first verse for “Tell Moses” (about Moses and leaving Egypt) and then Colvin very easily came up with the second verse (about Selma and MLK) but the third verse was difficult. Who would be the third hero? When they came up with the third verse, it exceeded all of Earle’s leftist expectations. The audience sang along on the chorus. The song is a modern-day spiritual or an “Abraham, Martin, and John” for today.





Earle quoted one of his drug counselors when talking about autism – We’re not so concerned how the mule got in the ditch but how he’s going to get out. Earle said he’s been lucky enough to meet a lot of his heroes and most were good experiences. There were only two bad experiences, which he wasn’t going to tell us about. Of course, the audience begged and pleaded and kept encouraging Earle to tell us who they were but he just smiled and laughed and said no. Earle was performing at the Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia when he got the call about John Henry’s diagnosis. He immediately called Stephen Stills, who has an autistic son and for whom he’d played benefits for Autism Speaks before his own son’s diagnosis. Stills put Earle in touch with his wife Kristin, who is the autism tiger mom of LA. Last December, Jackson Browne played at the John Henry’s Friends benefit. This spring, Earle, Browne, and Graham Nash were at Byron Bay. When Nash heard Earle and Browne talking about the benefit, he told Earle, “Don’t forget to call me.” Nash had recently moved to NYC, Earle called him, and there he was.

Nash played acoustic guitar with Shane Fontayne on electric guitar and background vocals. There was loud applause when they came on stage and Nash said, “You’re showing your age.” They went right into the Hollies’ “Bus Stop” and then Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Marrakesh Express.” Nash introduced the next song saying that his friends know not to piss him off. He’s a quiet Englishman until he crosses that line. This song is about a time in Vancouver where he watched his bandmates waved on through by customs and he wasn’t allowed to go through. So he wrote “Immigration Man,” which was recorded for Graham Nash David Crosby. Then he played “Sleep Song” from his debut solo album released in 1971. Nash sat at the keyboards and said he was going to play a song for Joni. A few of us in the audience immediately applauded because we [hoped we] knew what was coming. And we were right. For “Our House,” Nash had us sing the chorus alone. He ended his set with “Chicago” from that debut solo album. It was such a thrill to see him in such an intimate setting and to get to hear a few of his most popular and loved songs.



There was a small intermission to re-set the stage for Steve Earle and the Dukes, who were going to play Guitar Town in full. I took advantage of the break to make another run to the ladies’ room and to my surprise (and the surprise of all the women down there) there was a very very long line for the men’s room but no line for the ladies’ room and we were moving in and out like clockwork. The women were actually hysterically laughing and high-fiving each other. You’d have to be a woman to understand the miracle that was occurring.

Colvin came out and said that she had a habit for falling for the wrong men and there was one boyfriend in Nashville in 1989 who broke up with her by saying, “I’ve got cats to feed.” But her mother said that at least one good thing comes out of every relationship and in this case, the boyfriend had introduced her to Guitar Town. She was late to the party since the record had been released in 1986 but when she heard it, the record owned her. Nothing had done that since the Beatles had owned her years before. Colvin went on to cover “Someday” on one of her albums.

The current incarnation of the Dukes is Kelley Looney (electric and upright bass, vocals), Chris Masterson (electric guitars, vocals), Eleanor Whitmore (violin, keys, acoustic guitar, vocals), Chris Clark (keys, pedal steel, accordion, tic-tac guitar), Brad Pemberton (drums). And, of course, Earle at the front on acoustic guitar and mandolin. Steve Earle and the Dukes’ current GT30 tour has been celebrating the 30th anniversary of Guitar Town. If you are a fan of rock, country, alt-country, or Americana and have never heard Guitar Town, then I (strongly) suggest that you buy it immediately. This album has not only been an influence on so many albums in those genres but it is a great album all on its own. The band immediately went into “Guitar Town” and “Goodbye’s All We Have Left.”

Earle had released some singles in the 1980s that went nowhere on the country charts and the label dropped him. Noel Fox signed him to a publishing deal (Silverline/Goldline Music owned by the Oak Ridge Boys) and told Earle to write whatever he wanted. He had no idea what to do. Then he went to see Bruce Springsteen in Murfreesboro, TN for the Born in the USA tour and he went home and knew immediately what to do. He wrote Guitar Town. They played “Hillbilly Highway,” “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” “My Old Friend the Blues,” and “Someday.” He dedicated “Someday” to Colvin. And “My Old Friend the Blues” makes me cry every time I hear it and this was no exception. Because of the intimacy of the space I could see Earle’s face clearly and almost hear his heart breaking.

Earle said that Guitar Town made all his dreams come true. Richard Bennett produced the album along with Emory Gordy and Earle said that Bennett was the heart of the record. Gordy’s girlfriend was Mary Martin (she worked with Albert Grossman and supposedly suggested the Band to Dylan when Al Kooper dropped out of his tour). When Gordy suggested flying Bennett in from LA to work on the album, Martin said, “Isn’t flying a guitar player into Nashville like flying hookers into Vegas?” One of the songs was difficult to make better than the demo, so Bennett played all the instruments while Earle just sang. The set finished with “Think It Over,” “Fearless Heart,” “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller,” and “Down the Road.” Earle was banging his chest to the beat of the bass drum for “Fearless Heart” and it feels like he’s still living the song. When he wrote “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” there were no cell phones and he’d have to call his son from truck stops. Now it’s the same song but a different little boy.



For the encore, the band came back out and sang a new song that will be on their new album that will be recorded next year. Willie Nelson will probably be singing the second verse on “Never Go Home.” Then Earle asked everyone to come out on stage. He had asked Nash if they could use his song for the finale that night and the next night. Nash said yes. Then Earle asked if they could use the song as the finale every year and Nash said yes. Everyone performed “Teach Your Children” with the audience singing along.



By Carene Lydia Lopez