Steve Earle & The Dukes (and Duchesses) roll into the second city to play the grand ‘ole’ symphony hall as part of the tour promoting Earle’s latest album ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’ (there is also a debut novel of the same name that I’m beginning to regret not having bought and had signed at the ‘after show’ signing). With a title borrowed from Hank Williams’ last release before his premature death in 1953, both album and novel are heavily preoccupied with issues surrounding mortality. This is not surprising when you consider just how close Earle came to suffering a similar fate at the hands of his own addictions.
Since returning from the brink, Earle has frequently discussed his remarkable retreat from the crippling lifestyle that had sought to dissolve all he had and held dear. Indeed, during tonight’s performance, Earle will both solemnly and jokingly refer to how fortunate he is to be here at all, let alone playing music for the impressive turn out in Birmingham.
It would be logical to assume that for anyone to stay on top of their addictions they must have something purposeful occupying that previously vacant spot on the ‘reasons to live’ side of the scales. Evidently, Earle is heaping as much as he possibly can onto the life affirming side. What with his rapidly expanding family, guest spots on HBO’s Treme (both as an actor and composer), a second novel in the offering and his well-received radio show ‘Hardcore Troubadour Radio’ (Sirius XM), Earle seems to be revelling in the increased workload and shows no sign of reining in his impressive output.
His work ethic is further enhanced by the fact that there will be no support act for the evening: Earle and his band choosing to monopolise the stage for close to three hours. This break with the usual protocol catches more than a few of the audience off guard. Many no doubt anticipated there would be support of some kind, and so upon arrival, must have been shocked to hear the sound of Earle’s growl already working its way through the sinews of the building. Frustrating for those latecomers, and so too for the many already seated (the ushers were still shepherding late arrivals about well into the third and fourth songs of the set…more than a little distracting).
For the opening portion of the concert, the focus is on the new T Bone Burnett produced album. Earle and his noble cohorts begin with the reverberating country shuffle ‘Waitin on the Sky’; this is also the first track on the album and one of Earle’s more conspicuously autobiographical songs. Earle and the band continue to showcase the new material with songs like ‘Little Emperor’, ‘The Gulf of Mexico’ and ‘Molly-O’ before the glorious and heartfelt ‘Every Part of Me’.
Not wanting to steal the limelight, Earle talks of wanting to introduce the Dukes and Duchesses to their audience, but he is going to do it “bluegrass style”. First up, the headliner’s multi-instrumentalist wife, Alison Moorer. An accomplished musician, Moorer moves effortlessly from instrument to instrument (piano, guitar and accordion to name but a few), all the time, her voice, the antithesis of Earle’s, frames his words beautifully. Earle leaves the stage and affords his wife the chance to shine. That she does, with three songs, most impressive of which is her version of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which she dedicates to her New York comrades currently occupying the streets in and around the stock exchange of lower Manhattan in protest at the catastrophic recklessness of the banks.
Moorer’s comments are not the only political utterances of the evening. Earle is far from shy when it comes to airing his political grievances; many of his songs are born out of the frustration for the pockets of society that he feels are poorly treated by his government. Songs like ‘The Revolution Starts Now’, ‘City of Immigrants’ and ‘The Mountain’ all tell of the plight of the downtrodden, misrepresented populous of his beloved America.
After a short intermission, Earle marks his return to the stage with a thundering version of the classic ‘Copperhead Road’, followed soon after by the rousing ‘Galway Girl’. The bluegrass style introductions continue as long-time bassist Kelley Looney switches to acoustic guitar in order to lead the band in a performance of ‘Free Men’. Not long after, we are introduced to the pairing of guitarist Chris Masterson and his wife Eleanor Whitmore, a.k.a. The Mastersons. Playing the song ‘Crash Test’ from their new album ‘Birds Fly South’, Earle once again allows his group the opportunity to demonstrate their extracurricular endeavours.
Steve Earle & The Dukes (and Duchesses) performance tonight manages to deliver a hefty potion of the new album, but they also ensure that significant numbers from Earle’s previous albums make welcome appearances too. A sure-fire way of pleasing the symphony hall audience, who’s appreciation is shown in their refusal to leave their seats at the end, calling on Earle and his band to perform two encores. Earle really seems to be enjoying himself, touring a superb new album, with a truly talented batch of musicians. Easily the best treat I have received on Halloween (terrible I know).
Review – Chris Curtis
Photos – Andy Whitehouse