Steve Earle and the Dukes – Music Hall of Williamsburg – May 8, 2013
Steve Earle is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He was first introduced to me as the character Walon on The Wire, the kind-hearted sponsor seeing Bubbles through rehab. More recently he was the street performer Harley on the New Orleans–based, post-Katrina Treme. In the mid to late ’80s, he was a country rocker getting a taste of mainstream success. In the ’90s, he battled his way through drug addiction, becoming stronger in the process, and put out some of the best music of his life—moving much closer to the folk-rock singer-songwriter realm, penning songs designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Earle’s never shied away from politics, taking on all kinds of activist roles. With his heart on his sleeve, Earle’s an easy guy to like, and through all these chapters of his life, he’s built an interesting persona.
The Steve Earle of today is one happy fellow. It shows onstage, and he’ll be the first to admit it. “This is the best band I have ever had,” Earle told the Music Hall of Williamsburg crowd last night as he introduced the four backing members of his band, the Dukes. He repeated this claim when discussing his inspiration for his latest album, The Low Highway, telling the audience, “I wanted to record an album with the best band I’ve ever had.” This doesn’t feel like hyperbole: The band is perfect for Earle, and it’s a demanding role considering his music hits on just about every genre, seems to involve every instrument imaginable and is as powerful as it is in hard-rocking loud moments as it is in hushed and fragile ones. The back of the stage was filled with an impressive lineup of guitars, mandolins, banjos and just about every other stringed instrument you could imagine.
Earle’s set included favorites for every fan imaginable, classics like “Copperhead Road,” “Guitar Town” and “Hard-Core Troubadour,” plus newer tunes like “The Galway Girl” and “You’re Still Standing There.” Earle introduced his heartfelt tribute to New Orleans, “This City,” as a song that now also speaks just as well to the hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods of our own New York City. For “I Thought You Should Know,” he blew through a gnarled harmonica solo, playing the instrument so close to the microphone that it simultaneously sounded familiar and rough around the edges, with the wailing harmonica sounds barely escaping through layers of distortion and grit. If there ever were a moment to perfectly capture what Earle’s music and life are all about, it was this one. —Dan Rickershauser