“If you want to play the blues and you’re from Texas, the bar is fucking high,” Steve Earle says by way of introduction to the evening’s theme. True enough, Earle’s home state has proved fertile ground for spawning legendary movers and shakers in the blues, and considering Texan Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground was sent into space in 1977, it’s fair to say the bar has left the stratosphere. But anyone in doubt of Earle’s credentials need only look at a life spent high, low and in between, and tonight he channels that rage, heartache and mellowed reflection into a blistering set with backing band The Dukes on lightning form.
Though he’s written a host of country blues songs, this year’s Terraplane marks Earle’s first out and out Blues Album and these songs have an added grit live. Earle honks and grunts through the grinding harmonica-driven Baby Baby Baby (Baby), while guitarist Chris Masterson’s roadhouse riffing lends an apocalyptic rumble to The Tennessee Kid’s visions of the devil coming to claim his dues. Elsewhere, Eleanor Whitmore’s honeyed vocals contrast with Earle’s raspy grunt on duet My Baby’s Just As Mean As Me and her relentlessly devilish fiddle lines, punctuated by Will Rigby’s snare snaps, give Love’s Gonna Blow My Way the ramshackle drama of a street brawl. Of course, the biggest cheers are elicited from a slew of back-to-back classics mid-set as My Old Friend The Blues shimmers and the country boogie of Guitar Town rattles straight into Copperhead Road, which still raises hairs during its electrifying breakdown, supercharged by Masterson’s pellmell guitar histrionics.
As always with Earle, songs move between the personal and the polemical. Little Emperor’s bluegrass indictment of George W. Bush seethes with prophetic venom while recent single Mississippi It’s Time urges the banning of the confederate flag with a big dixieland chorus, Earle commenting beforehand “If you’ve any doubt that flag is racist, I’ve never seen a Ku Klux Klan rally without fifty of the fuckers flyin’”. By contrast, slow ballad I Thought You Should Know and Galway Girl’s spirited jig are heartfelt and joyful during “the chick section of the set, which is important because I’m single now and it stops my audience from getting uglier and hairier,” the hirsute Earle remarks. But the night’s most hauntingly powerful moment is in the juxtaposition between the ragtime misadventure of South Nashville Blues, written about Earle’s years in the wilderness of addiction and which he admits “makes my life sound a lot more fucking fun than it was”, and the haunting reminder of addiction’s grip, CCKMP (Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain). The stage is bathed in red light as Masterson’s slide and Whitmore’s fiddle add an air of sticky reverie, before longtime cohorts Kelly Looney’s sluggish bass and Rigby’s thudding beat bring the gravity to Earle’s fevered growl, “Don’t come knockin’ on my door / ‘Cause even that won’t work no more”.
Ironically, it’s during the churning plod of some 12-bar blues numbers that the band get stuck in a rut, though the fiery interplay in the solos between husband and wife duo Masterson and Whitmore do much to alleviate the grind and the Stonesy groove of Go Go Boots Are Back injects some mojo back into proceedings. There are welcome surprises like the Earle-Marianne Faithfull collaboration Give My Love To London’s swirling danse macabre through the city on judgment night and an anarchic run through Hey Joe with Masterson’s angular guitar flourishes matching Earle’s raucous vocals and Rigby’s calamitous drums, but it’s when Earle’s songs are aimed underneath the skin that they hit their mark best. Better Off Alone, penned in the wake of his split from Alison Moorer, dolorously relives the close of a relationship with scab-picking vividness and Goodbye, the first song Earle wrote sober, grows ever more devastating with each repeated admission “But I can’t remember if we said goodbye,” and his harmonica blows high and lonesome like a train rumbling away in the distance.
Heartbreak, addiction, politics, go-go boots: Steve Earle has got the blues aplenty. Long may he have them.
Review by: James MacKinnon