(photo by Ted Barron, New West Records)
You never quite know what a Steve Earle show has in store for you until Mr. Earle takes the stage. And last Friday night at the Beacon Theatre was no different.
I haven't seen Steve Earle live since when he was touring for his Jerusalem album back around 2002, and I really did not know what to expect. His output since that record and tour continued with the politically-charged The Revolution Starts Now, and upon relocating to NYC, with his Washington Square Serenede. He has also been busy acting on the two groundbreaking HBO television series, The Wire and Treme. Oh yeah, and he married Allison Moorer and had a baby. But I digress.
For me personally, as much as I have enjoyed Mr. Earle's music over the years, and agree with him politically, I really liked and respected Jerusalem and the much-acclaimed The Revolution Starts... Now albums when they were originally released, but over the years I have rarely revisited them. For me, the four-album groundswell of the brilliant Train a Comin', I Feel Alright, El Corazon, and Transcendental Blues were the albums I often pulled off my shelf or threw onto the passenger side and road-tripped to. These have been always been among my well-worn staples, and fairly or not, what I identify with Mr. Earle.
I held off from seeing Mr. Earle live over the last few years, just because I was afraid of what I heard secondhand: that his performances were becoming more and more filled equally with talking politics and playing music. To me, even though I am right there alongside him politically, I was just afraid, so I decided to sit out for a bit. Somehow, I kept, frustratingly, missing him when he was supporting Washington Square Serenade, an album that pays homage to New York City, and one, that I myself, as a going-on five year resident to New York, really enjoy.
Well, all of that fear and frustration quickly faded when I read that the great Levon Helm was going to be playing the Beacon Theatre with none other than Steve Earle opening. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to not just see Mr. Helm for my first time (you can read my review of Mr. Helm's set here), but to check in with Mr. Earle. To me, this show was a double-bill of two artists I greatly admired, and also a show for my wife and I to bring her father to, as a true family affair. And man, what a great choice!
As the lights dimmed last Friday night, Mr Earle strode right across the stage by his lonesome, finding his place in the center. Looking as if he just casually strolled in off of the streets, of this town that he now calls home, he was dressed in a plaid western shirt, well-worn boots, and a red bandana wrapped around his right wrist. Looking down from the balcony I thought to myself: this is the Steve Earle I've been waiting to see again. It's been too damn long brother.
With the sole white spotlight shining down on him, and with only his guitar in his hands, and a harmonica around his neck, Mr. Earle launched immediately into "I Feel Alright", from his 1996 album of the same name.
From there, the rollicking "You Know The Rest" from El Corazon turned on a faster, looser clip, while "Someday" took on a much more reflective tone than the original rendition from Guitar Town. Next, as described in his own words, "the first song I wrote sober", the eloquent and breathtaking "Goodbye", from Train A Comin' floated through the theater. It was heartbreaking and comfortably reassuring.
"Tennessee Blues" came next, with the refrain "Goodbye Guitar Town" still lingering as the narrative yarn of "Taneytown" followed. As Mr. Earle grabbed for his Bouzouki, he described the not-so-commonplace stringed instrument and of it's Greek origins to the audience, before launching into a impassioned version of "City of Immigrants". The audience latched onto the chorus, especially towards the end, when he called out the lines "We are all immigrants", only to be met with the audience responding the same lines back to him. It was pretty incredible and felt amazing.
Without skipping a beat, Mr. Earle reached for his mandolin and belted out the celtic-infused "The Galway Girl". The mandolin seemed to set everybody off, and you could just hear everyone in the place stomping, whistling, hollering, and clapping right along. Our balcony seats were definitely the right choice for this show, and this tune shook the rafters.
The night ended with Mr. Earle sharing some pretty tasty bits of what he has going on in the works. He announced that he had just wrapped up a new album with T-Bone Burnett, his book is finished and will be released soon, and that when the second season of filming Treme wraps up next spring, he'll be hitting the road with the Dukes next summer! And if that wasn't enough, he closed his set with "Copperhead Road".
All I can say is that this final act of news and song was like a series of one-two punches, knocking me out. I came to when the house lights were raised, and was so glad that I finally got to see Mr. Earle again. Plus, it just felt so good to share it with my father-in-law and my wife, both of which were totally floored by their first Steve Earle performance.