- Steve Earle’s is one of the more amazing stories in recent music memory.
Having been jailed in 1994 on drug and firearm charges, it was anyone’s guess whether Earle would ever resume his career as a songwriter and recording artist. Earle, who long followed the lead of his mentor Townes van Zandt both musically and recreationally, seemed to be on pace to finish up his life just as his infamous mentor had.
But neither addiction nor jail could kill Steve Earle.
Since then, a 1995 comeback has turned into the second half of a career that has seen a total of fourteen live and studio releases in the last sixteen years. Never one to shy away from controversy, Earle released the album Jerusalem in 2002. Jerusalem was Earle’s reaction to the shock and anger surrounding the events of 9/11 and featured the single “John Walker’s Blues” which attempted to tell the story of arrested “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh from a first person perspective.
In August of 2004, he released The Revolution Starts… Now an album focused on an America in the midst of a war in Iraq and timed its release specifically to coincide with the then upcoming 2004 Presidential election.
Political opinions in country music virtually killed off the careers of lesser artists.
But controversy couldn’t kill Steve Earle.
2011 finds Earle touring in support of the April release of his newest album I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. As if that wasn’t enough, 2011 also marked the release of his debut novel of the same name. In the little spare time he had, Earle took another stab at acting portraying the character Harley Watt in nine episodes of the HBO drama Treme.
Not even an insanely busy schedule could kill Steve Earle.
And it was all of the above that made Earle’s performance in Chicago so glorious.
Tuesday night saw Steve arrive at the Vic Theatre backed by “The Dukes (And Duchesses)” a six piece band (the first time Earle has toured with a full rock band in several years). The Dukes & Duchesses were made up of the multi-instrumentalist, husband/wive team Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, bassist (generally fretless) since 1988 Kelly Looney, drummer Will Rigby and Earle’s wife Allison Moorer. The incredibly talented band basically all took turns switching back and forth between banjo, mandolin and acoustic and electric guitar. Masterson also sat down for some peddle steel and ultimately, five of the six bandmembers onstage took a shot at singing lead vocal on at least one song.
- Photo taken by Jim Ryan
Earle primarily sang and played guitar (though he allowed the heavy lifting on lead guitar to be done by Chris Masterson and opted instead generally for rhythm on either acoustic or electric) and it was obvious from the opening note of set opener “Waiting on the Sky” that the audience was in for a ride.
The set could really be divided into three parts: The full band first set, Allison Moorer’s solo set, and the full band second set (with solo acoustic and husband/wife duets sprinkled in).
Earle made his often controversial political opinions clear early on as he introduced his opinions on gay marriage. Later on, he explained to the audience why he feels that “Trade unions are essential to democracy everywhere” as he began to play “The Mountain.”
Moorer performed a three song set and wasn’t afraid to get political either. After regaling the crowd with her thoughts on the current and previous Presidential administrations, she began an emotional, solo, country flavored version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (a performance she also dedicated to her and Earle’s fifteen month old son).
Earle’s second set featured more of his hits and acted as a celebration of his impressive catalog and began with 1988′s “Copperhead Road” which continued straight into the sing-along chorus of “The Galway Girl.” For me, “Transcendental Blues” was not only the highlight of the second set but maybe even the entire show. Masterson’s seering solo (one of many on the night) was incredible and took the song to a new level live.
The Dukes’ impressive encore consisted of “Taneytown,” “Hard-Core Troubador,” and an anthemic rendition of “The Revolution Starts… Now.” Whether or not one agrees with the song’s clear political message, it’s impossible not to see “Revolution” as the very epitome of rock n’ roll. Rock n’ roll is supposed to piss people off. And make no mistake, the rollicking live version of this song (far moreso than on record) did just that. The band finally finished up the two and a half hour set with Earle’s first 1986 country rock hit “Guitar Town” (a song that got the best crowd reaction of the evening and threatened to drown Earle out entirely).
Chicago has recently been one of Steve Earle’s better markets (Earle dedicated one song to local artist Tony Fitzpatrick who has done album artwork for him several times). That said, it was surprising to find the venue not sold out.
Love him or hate him (for most, there seems to be very little in between), it was a pleasure to watch Earle’s amazing second act continue to unfold on Tuesday night at the Vic Theatre. Earle summed up not only his outlook on life but also his ever evolving catalog and live show early on when he said “… I’m a... progressor. And that’s how we roll… I love my job.”
- Photo taken by Jim Ryan