John Henry’s Friends: Town Hall 5 December 2016

The official annual event was taking place in Town Hall, one of the best auditoriums in NYC. It’s intimate and there’s not a bad seat in the house. This is Steve Earle’s benefit for the Keswell School (formerly known as the McCarton School), a school for children and young adults with autism, which Earle’s son, John Henry, attends.

The show was slated to start at 8:05pm and at 8:05pm it started. I was sitting in the last row of the right balcony because that’s where the cheapest seats were. A lot of the balcony was empty – I’m not sure what the orchestra looked like. I don’t know if it was because a lot of people attended the show the night before at City Winery or if the ticket price was just too much but there were not as many people as there had been the year before. Michael Dorf (owner of City Winery) came out to introduce Earle. Earle told the same story he’d told about when he found out about John Henry’s diagnosis and contacting Stephen Stills. Most of the evening would be the same or very similar to the night before.


The first artist was Matt Savage on keyboards. Earle said he is a pianist who leaves a lot of musicians in the dust. Savage was (I believe) a former student at Keswell and he is now a music teacher at the school. Just like last year, I find him technically brilliant but the music itself doesn’t move me. He started with Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” which was beautifully performed but even the original isn’t my type of music. The title of Savage’s album is Piano Voyage and another song is “Southie to SoHo” because Savage travels a lot between Boston and NYC. He ended with the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which again showed off Savage’s technical brilliance and he can play lots of notes faster than nobody’s business but it all leaves me cold. Earle came back and said, “The technical term for that is badass.”

Just like the night before, I thought the sound engineer had the volume up too high. In this setting it meant that the acoustic guitars had an overly amplified electrified sound that does not work for me. Throughout the show people were taking photos and videos, which usually isn’t allowed at Town Hall, so I didn’t take any because it felt wrong.

Earle introduced Shawn Colvin by saying she had recorded his song “Someday” which brought light to his life in a very dark time in his life. She started off with Paul Westerberg’s “Even Here We Are” while playing acoustic guitar and then Earle came out and the set was the same. “Come What May,” “Burnin’ It Down,” “Sunny Came Home,” “Diamond in the Rough,” and “Tell Moses.” Colvin again said she mostly writes blues songs or songs about death and regret. Earle said that “Sunny Came Home” is “a fucking murder ballad.” Unlike at City Winery, people didn’t applaud at the musical intro to the songs – they didn’t recognize the songs until she started singing. Earle told the story about producing a record for David Broza (calling him “like Bruce Springsteen and a bag of chips”) and how easy it was to write songs with Colvin and that they wrote two songs every session. He said he’d never written with someone before. And he said that the experience in Israel had changed him – that you can’t go there and not be changed. That was the introduction to “Tell Moses” and again said how hard it was to come up with a third hero. (To see the full stories told about these songs or any others, you can go to the City Winery review. Or you may have to read both reviews for the full stories since I remembered some bits for one review and other pieces for the other review.) For “Tell Moses,” Earle told us to we had to sing and if we sang loud enough then maybe Trump will hear it and he’ll think they wrote it for him. Earle had come up with the mandolin riff first and then the first verse and Colvin easily came up with the second verse.

Earle said he liked his job and he liked this room and its history. He told the story about Jackson Browne and Graham Nash at the Byron Bay Bluesfest. And he told the story about the Air Force base that was near his childhood home. Like all kids of his generation he fell in love with the Beatles and then with a lot of British groups. One of the Air Force wives was from Manchester and when he found out he asked her, “So you must know the Hollies?” Earle also spent an entire summer drinking Bali-Hai, smoking, and playing Crosby, Stills & Nash songs with his friends.

Nash came out with his acoustic guitar and Shane Fontayne on electric guitar and background vocals and they played “Military Madness” and “I Used to Be a King” from his debut solo album. Then he put on a harmonica (“Who invented this shit?” about the harmonica holder) and performed a new song “Myself at Last.” Next he went to the keyboards to play a song for Joni but it was a different song – “Simple Man” – also from his debut solo album. Nash told Fontayne that it’s a pleasure making music with him. And he told us that Joni Mitchell is doing remarkably well. She is awake and speaking and not walking yet but she is working on that. Nash said that songs can come from the most personal moments. After breakfast one morning, Nash and Joni went to an antique shop and she bought a vase. When they got home Nash said, “Hey, Joni. Why don’t I light the fire while you put the flowers in the vase that you bought today?” So, of course, he played “Our House.” He ended his set again with “Chicago.” During the line “don’t ask Jack” I could swear I heard him sing “don’t ask Barack” but I could have misheard.

Ivy Feldman, executive director of the Keswell School, came out and briefly talked about the school. She said that they are working to find the students’ voice however that may be. It’s never too late to succeed and if it doesn’t work, they try something else.

Colvin came out to introduce GT30 and told the story of the bad boyfriend again. And she found it very moving that Earle found her cover of “Someday” meaningful.

Steve Earle and the Dukes [Kelley Looney (electric and upright bass, vocals), Chris Masterson (electric guitars, vocals), Eleanor Whitmore (violin, keys, acoustic guitar, vocals and “she dilutes the ugly on the stage”), Chris Clark (keys, pedal steel, accordion, tic-tac guitar), Brad Pemberton (drums)] came out and went right into “Guitar Town,” which has a guitar riff that I could listen to over and over and over. Then “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left.” Earle told the story about Noel Fox signing him to Silverline/Goldline Music and how he didn’t know what to do until seeing a Bruce Springsteen concert and three hours and 10 minutes later he knew precisely what to do. They played “Hillbilly Highway,” “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” and “My Old Friend the Blues” that opens with just the acoustic and pedal steel before the entire band kicks in. Then “Someday,” “Think It Over,” “Fearless Heart,” “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller,” and “Down the Road.” Earle said it was the last show of GT30 and they had played a lot of shows in Canada because for some reason he’s more popular in Canada than the US. He told the Richard Bennett story again with Mary Martin’s remark (“Isn’t flying a guitar player into Nashville like flying hookers into Vegas?”) and he banged his chest again for “Fearless Heart” and introduced “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” the same way.

For the encore the band came back out and played the new song “Never Go Home.” And then everyone came out for the encore, “Teach Your Children.”


By Carene Lydia Lopez