Here is Steve Earle in the 21st century. It ain’t as cool as he hoped it would be he sings last night in Stockholm. Luckily for us though Steve Earle provided the Stockholm crowd with a very cool set list that kept them way up past their bedtimes.
The songs from Steve’s very recently released latest album, The Low Highway, feature unsurprisingly heavily on the current tour. So heavily in fact that all 12 songs from the album were played last night.
But Steve was on stage for over 2 hours and at times zipped through songs so fast that there was no time for the audience to clap, enabling him to perform over 30 songs in total from across his significant back catalogue.
Now, for those that don’t know, Steve Earle is quite a character. A country rocker who made his first record in the mid 1980’s, disappeared from view and into prison after a period of heavy drug abuse and re emerged in the mid 90s reformed and rejuvenated.
Since then he hasn’t stopped. Producing album after album of high quality music which goes far beyond the country rock tag and includes heavy rock, bluegrass, blues, roots and folk.
His music contains, as well as haunting and beautiful love songs, many politically charged lyrics. He is a left-wing radical by US standards and amongst many issues he actively supports are the abolition of the death penalty and the occupy movement.
He has also been married seven times (twice to the same woman) although seems to have settled down in recent years with singer Alison Moorer, normally in the band but inexplicably absent last night.
His wild days have clearly left a mark. He has long but thinning grey hair with a centre bald patch and a huge Buddha like beard which with his glasses make him look like Allen Ginsburg in his latter life. Steve also has a bear like figure with a huge Texan waist and he often seems breathless on stage and fails to finish the odd line. At times it is hard to make out the lyrics as he mumbles or doesn’t quite make the notes.
And while last night’s set straddled the full range of musical styles in Steve’s repertoire it was perhaps the heavier rocker side that got the lion’s share of air time and the loud electric guitars and drums also made it harder to hear the words.
This is a shame as Steve Earle is perhaps the best American songwriter around today.
Steve Spends a lot of time on the road, a fact obvious in Stockholm last night with the tour bus parked right out front of the venue, Nalen, a small concert hall in an old 1880’s dance hall in a small back street in the centre of the city.
And the title track of his latest album, The Low Highway, is a commentary on America, garnered from travels across the country in the bus. This song, full of Steinbeck like imagery tells of hungry people and empty houses.
Another stand out track from the album is Burnin’ it Down, one of many narrative Steve Earle songs about characters on the margins of small town America, this one is contemplating burning the local wall mart down.
And one of the stand out songs from last night, Invisible, sung wonderfully by Steve and bass player and long time Duke Kelley Looney, was introduced by Steve as being inspired by seeing the ever-increasing line at a soup kitchen in his New York neighborhood.
Steve’s story telling between songs is as entertaining as the music itself and is also often very political, be it in an odd throw away remark like “Coming from occupied Mexico as I do….” (Steve is from Texas), to a longer tale about a friend of his who was an investment banker and was once a republican “though he credited me with sorting that problem out.”
This was Warren Hellman, who when San Francisco city workers nearly lost all their pensions stepped in with a huge endowment. Steve dedicated the song Warren Hellman’s Banjo to him adding “just goes to show you folks, you don’t have to be an asshole if you are rich.”
Steve introduced the next song, Little Emperor, about George W Bush, by saying “now this is about someone who is rich and an asshole.”
Amongst the array of musical styles on offer last night was some rootsy New Orleans influenced numbers. This is because Steve has been acting in a drama series about post Katrina New Orleans called Treme (he was also in a few episodes of the Wire).
The New Orleans segment of last night’s set included This City from the last album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive and from the Low Highway came After Mardi Grass, Pocket Full of Rain with Steve taking to piano and guitar player Chris Masterson providing a mid track blast of thunderous electric guitar, and the gypsy like Love’s Gonna Blow My Way, one of many tracks showcasing some great violin playing from Eleanor Whitmore, the wife of guitar player Chris with whom she forms the Mastersons who were tonight’s support act.
Steve mentioned many times that the current line up of the Dukes is the best band he has ever had and indeed they are an impressive bunch of musicians, the Masterson’s in particular, whose support set was full of pleasant country twinged harmonies, came alive with Steve, providing scintillating guitar solos, either in 1950s tremolo Guitar Town style or on rock numbers such as Taneytown about a black kid who stabs a rich white kid in self defence and features in longer form in Steve’s short story prose collection Doghouse Roses.
As well as great violin playing (which at times suffered from being too loud or too quiet in the mix), Eleanor provided wonderful harmonies on numerous tracks including You’re Still Standing There, originally recorded by Steve with Lucinda Williams on harmony.
Amongst the rockier numbers that included a furious Copperhead Road and The Revolution Starts Now, were some bluegrass numbers from perhaps Steve Earle’s greatest album Train a Comin’ including Mystery Train and the brilliant civil war critique of Ben McCulloch. There was also the Irish folk fuelled Galway Girl.
In fact the songs just kept coming and after what seemed a shaky nervous opening (which included a strained but brilliant I Thought You Should Know, in which Steve asks a new lover not to break his heart which, is already broken), it seemed Steve didn’t want to stop. Although with each encore the audience thinned more and more, the Swedes not used to being up past midnight, as it now was, on a weeknight.
Although it was perhaps the first encore that contained the night’s greatest highlights including I Ain’t Ever Satisfied and two sublime love songs. One, My Old Friend the Blues, from Steve’ first album Guitar Town, the other from his latest.
This was Remember Me, made all the more heart-rending as Steve told us before playing it that it is about his three-year old son who has been diagnosed with autism. The song is about Steve, who, 58, knows he won’t be around long in his son’s life.
His fragile vocals may not always suit a loud live performance, but with moments of brilliance, beauty and sadness this was, as ever, a typical up and down evening in the company of a great artist, which I would never want to miss.