Steve Earle is an artist that I’ve always been aware of but have never seen live. So when he played the Royal Festival Hall, I thought I would remedy the situation – and I now regret not doing it sooner.
He was heavily and consistently featured on the rebooted Old Grey Whistle Test in early eighties, when it was fronted by the likes of David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw. They seemed to have the videos for “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road” on permanent rotation. I wasn’t huge fan, I was probably a little young to truly appreciate country. I recall “Copperhead Road” in particular being marketed on the back of “Born In The USA”. It had that booming martial drumbeat, telling tales of Vietnam and the veteran’s troubles. If truth be told, I found it a little bombastic, which turned me off Earle for a good while.
I parked Earle as a consequence but I bought his 2002 album “Jerusalem”. This was one of the very few post September 11 albums that took a hard look at the USA’s world view and foreign policy and how the American Dream wasn’t really working out for most Americans. It had a real bite to it and stood up and stood out at a time when many artists were keeping their heads down. Earle is an ardent campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty and supports Amnesty International. Earle followed “Jerusalem” with “The Revolution Starts Now” which further emphasised his anti-Iraq War views.
I’ve dipped back into his back catalogue since and he’s never taken the safe path. He’s tackled bluegrass with Del McCoury, recorded albums about his adopted home of New York and a Townes Van Zandt tribute album. He’s influenced by LA sixties garage rock and Texan rock’n’roll as well.
Earle is somewhat rootless. He’s never been accepted by the conservative Country music industry, not least because of his political leanings. He’s moved from his native Texas to Nashville and back again. He’s done jail time for drug possession. He’s ended up in New York for a number of reasons. It’s convenient for the ending of his seventh marriage, this time to musician Alison Moorer. It was where his musical heroes Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix got their breaks. But I also think that it probably where his left leaning views are most comfortable. I’ve visited the States on a number of occasions and have always found New York to be almost annexed politically from the rest of the USA. The historical status as a port and a gateway to a New World has made it a more open minded place. It often feels closer to Europe and in particular Britain than it does to the rest of America. I think this resonates with Earle.
In retrospect then, the Springsteen comparisons were perhaps not too wide of the mark, given both artist’s political and social sentiments and the mission both have been on incorporate wider American roots music into their work.
His latest album is a blues album. Surprisingly though, it’s a very relaxed affair. One would expect Earle to really focus on the “if wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all” aspect of the blues. He even says in his sleeve notes “Hell, everybody’s sick of all my fucking happy songs anyway”, somewhat tongue in cheek. “Terraplane” doesn’t tread that path though and whilst it would be a stretch to call it good time party music, it isn’t anywhere near as downbeat as much of Earle’s material. Earle has mentioned how he wanted to capture the sound of the early ZZ Top records.
“Terraplane” was the most heavily featured album in his set, which extended into Earle’s approach to the blues through his career. Having played the acoustic rag “South Nashville Blues”, he commented that if you take that song on its own, you would think his addiction years were a bunch of laughs. He therefore followed it with the dark “CCKMP” (“Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain”).
One of the most engaging aspects of the evening was Earle’s constant commentary on his songs. In the introduction to the beautiful “Goodbye”, he recalled that he’ll never forget writing the song as it was the first song that he wrote sober. He commented at the start of a run of romantic songs that he wrote them to attract women to his gigs otherwise he would just be looking out at balding, bearded, pot bellied men and frankly, he could see that by looking in the mirror. Earle joked about his chequered marital history, commenting that his divorce from Moorer lasted longer than some of his marriages.
The band in general had real stagecraft. Simple things like walking to the front of the stage and playing in front of the monitors during “Galway Girl” worked really well. His band included the husband and wife duo of the Mastersons who also were the support act. The use of the fiddle by Eleanor Whitmore in particular moved the sound towards Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, a dense monolithic blues on the “Terraplane” numbers. Earle’s voice was in fine form, deep and rich with a gruff edge to it. Whitmore’s harmonies worked wonderfully with it.
Earle was lighter on the social commentary through the evening. One of the most telling songs though was a recent digital single he released “Mississippi, It’s Time”, encouraging the state to do away with the confederate flag. This is his response to the Charleston massacre early this year after South Carolina removed their flag from their statehouse but Mississippi stoically avoided following suit. Proceeds from the single go to the SPLC, a charity to deal with poverty and discrimination in the Southern states. Earle argues that the flag is a symbol of historic and prevailing racism and from my distant perspective in the UK, he appears to have a point.
The highlight of the evening for me though was a song I hadn’t heard before called “I Thought You Should Know”. This is a deep soulful number that sounds like an old Stax number. It really is gorgeous, dating from 2004’s “The Revolution Starts Now”. With the Irish folk of Galway Girl and the country and blues numbers, it really did emphasise the versatility of Earle as a writer and the band as performers.
A word on the Mastersons:
They really put their heart and soul into getting the audience going. As beautiful a venue the Royal Festival Hall is, its comfort sometimes verges towards sterility with the wrong crowd in. The Mastersons though really went out of their way to be personable and it worked. Their material is sweet and honeyed. Since the gig, I’ve listened to some of their albums. I must admit I prefer the stripped back live sound of just the two of them. This unreleased track was a particular favourite from the evening, especially the bit where they stop playing and both hold a single note.
It was one of my favourite gigs of the year and I’m kicking myself for not catching up with Earle sooner.