My hometown, Fayetteville, Arkansas, has been in a drought of sorts for the last couple years, at least as far as decent touring music acts. But we truly lucked out on March 20, when Steve Earle decided to make our town his last stop on what he told us was a seven-month tour, to support his last release, Transcendental Blues.
The audience was large and adoring. We love Steve because he writes such great songs; because he is a quintessential survivor, has been to hell and back; because his music cannot be pigeonholed or easily labeled and he refuses to be constrained by musical categories; because he’s a bohemian-outsider-hillbilly; and because his political stands are brave and uncompromising. And he’s been coming to Fayetteville ever since the late ‘70s, when he first played at the Swinging Door along with Guy Clark. For all these reasons, the crowd included a much wider range of age groups than you normally see at rock events. And more women than usual. Lots of twenty-somethings, and lots of geezers like me. In fact, all the folks I saw Steve with are over 50, and we did not feel out of place at all.
Steve’s sister Stacey Earle, who’s promoting her second album, Dancin’ With Them That Brung Me, opened the show. Stacey performed solo, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and quickly won over a boisterous crowd that was dying for Steve to take the stage with her goofy mannerisms, peppiness, smart songs, and outstanding vocal phrasings. She reminds me a bit of Ricky Lee Jones. Particularly noteworthy was a song that she performed for the first time, about being lonely on tour in New York City, and her secret love affair with the Man in the Moon.
Steve and his band stormed onstage soon after Stacey left, opening with the first three cuts off of Transcendental Blues—the title cut, and then “Everybody Loves Me”, where Earle & the Dukes sound like the Beatles, and then “Another Town”. A great way to open, songs faithful to the album but with more distortion on the guitars, and played with great intensity. Steve has slimmed down some, put on a full beard, but the voice is still intense and raggedy and biting. The band proceeded to play for about two and a half hours, performing, in all, 35 songs. Lots of numbers from Transcendental Blues, but also tunes ranging from all over his career, including crowd pleasers like “Copperhead Road” and “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”, all played with equal passion and intensity. What’s truly amazing is how wide-ranging a set of sounds this little four-man band can produce. Not only have they mastered The Beatles (and the best Beatles, circa Revolver), as on so many of the songs from Transcendental Blues. They can also kick hard-rock ass with the best of them. They can blast out the bittersweet country ballads and the high lonesome bluegrass—as on “Travel and Toil”, from The Mountain (recorded with the Del McCoury Band), with Steve playing mandolin. When Steve straps on the harmonica, the group enters Dylanesque folk territory. And even Celtic—“Galway Girl” from Transcendental Blues, with Dan the manager joining the group on pennywhistle. The whole band is outstanding, but at the apex is guitarist Eric Ambel, formerly of the Del-Lords and the Blackhearts, who is forever grinding out smart, spare riffs, fills, power-chords, and solos.
Steve put his politics out there too, albeit in a low-key manner. The tone was set by the drumset, plastered with a reproduction of that recent cover of The Nation with George W. Bush as Mad Magazine‘s “What Me Worry?” Alfred E. Neumann. Two years ago when Steve and the Dukes played Fayetteville, they brought an anti-death penalty banner. No banner this time, but the focus was still on the death penalty. Steve did his haunting “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)”, from Transcendental Blues, about his experience witnessing the state’s execution of his friend Jonathan Noble in Huntsville, Texas. (You can also read about Steve’s harrowing and incredibly moving account of this experience in an article he wrote for Tikkun [September 2000]). Introducing “Travel and Toil”, Steve made a pitch for union membership, and added, “No matter who you vote for, George Bush is gonna fuck you.”
During the first encore set, Stacey came back to sing harmonies on “When I Fall” from Transcendental Blues. And then Steve and the Dukes showed us they could even do funk psychedelia. Adding Steve’s younger brother as a second drummer, they stormed through the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today”, in my opinion, one of the great anthems of the sixties. In the second encore set, Steve made a pitch against the War on Crime. The band ended their night, and the seven-month tour, with a fine cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia”, with Steve on mandolin.
Come back real soon, Steve, and let’s magnetize this motherfucker again.