mon 20/05/2024

Steve Earle, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Steve Earle, Royal Festival Hall

Steve Earle, Royal Festival Hall

Passion and politics as country's great polymath tours a powerful new album with a powerful new band

Hardcore Troubadour: Steve Earle, America's chief surveyorTed Barron

Steve Earle is country music's great polymath - short story writer, playwright, novelist, activist, actor, oh yes, and singer and songwriter of some of the most acutely intelligent and literate songs in contemporary country. He's adept at evoking the human cost of American history, American politics and the lay of the promised land, and on his latest album, The Low Highway, the first song takes a long, slow panning shot of the body politic. It’s not in great condition.

Happily, though, Steve Earle’s muse is.

Not only that, this, one of his first band tours in years, with the gallantly named Dukes and Duchesses – comprising singer and guitarist Chris Masterson, fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore, plus a rhythm section of bassist Kelley Looney and Will Rigby on drums, who have been with Earle since the late 1980s and late 1990s respectively. Masterson, from Houston, is a cracking electric guitarist though he was mixed too high in those speakers stacked behind the band on stage.

This being a Steve Earle gig, we get some great between-song raps

With Whitmore, on fiddle, mandolin, organ and always on the mark, and the two Dukes veterans, this was a band you could tell Earle was head-over-heels besotted with. To the point where, two-and-a-half hours after striding on to deliver the powerful opening title song from his latest album, along with the crunchy Stonesy racket of "Calico County", he closed with a string of encores, including a superb take on the Stones’ "Mother's Little Helper" and "Nothing But You", the only song, he says, that Dylan ever covered of his (on the first year of the latter’s Never-Ending Tour, fact fans).

In between, we get something like two dozen songs, much of The Low Highway album, and career classic such as "Guitar Town" and the properly pounding "Copperhead Road". And this being a Steve Earle gig, we get some great between-song raps, whether it’s the reason why the US is broke (“you can’t expand an empire and cut taxes at the same time”) or how we are back in the hard times of Woody Guthrie. “All of us who do this job that I do basically do a job invented by Bob Dylan when he was recreating himself in the image if Woody Guthrie. What we have in common, all of us including Bob, is that we never witnessed times like his first hand, what Woody saw in the 1930s and 1940s. Now we are. It’s tough out there. It’s tough all over the world.”

With a prophet’s beard, a prof’s hairline and the patter and body language of an actor, Earle’s persona on stage is all about lived experience, self-knowledge, political nous, and passionate engagement, whether it’s about the return of long lines for the soup kitchens in his neighbourhood Catholic church in New York, or the beautiful paean to his young son, John Henry, who was diagnosed with autism a year ago.

Having seen him solo several times, with just his voice, guitar and harmonica, it’s thrilling to see the man front a band again, and with one of his strongest albums to boot. He plays The Sage tonight, Bristol on Friday, and Glasgow and Liverpool at the end of the month. It’s a show worth traveling for.

Watch "Invisible" by Steve Earle & The Dukes & Duchesses on the David Letterman Show 

Earle’s persona on stage is all about lived experience, self-knowledge, political nous, and passionate engagement


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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