Last Night: Steve Earle & the Dukes at Stafford Centre

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Steve Earle & the Dukes, The Mastersons Stafford Centre for the Performing Arts April 25, 2012

After three decades of music, mischief and critical accolades, it might come as a surprise to some to find Steve Earle performing at the relatively out-of-the-way (by Inner Loop standards) Centre for the Performing Arts in Stafford.

Surely, you say, the man who gave us "Copperhead Road" and "The Mountain" has earned a spot at the Verizon? Or House of Blues, at the very least.

Maybe the Centre just wants to continue its string of hosting what we guess you'd call "classic" country acts, including Merle Haggard and Charley Pride. More likely it's because Earle eschews playing at most corporate-owned venues.

Whatever the reason, the decentralized environs favored the man's more dedicated fans over those who might wander in from a convention across the street, and Thursday night's set with the Dukes was a relaxed and mostly amiable affair, full of familiar gems and a (to us, anyway) surprisingly powerful opening set by the Mastersons.

Admittedly, Rocks Off is occasionally as guilty as blowing off opening acts as anybody (when our wife asked who was opening, our answer was along the lines of, "I don't know, the Manticores or something"). So what a pleasant surprise the Mastersons turned out to be.

Houston native Chris Masterson (guitar and vocals) and wife Eleanor Whitmore (guitar, fiddle and vocals) kicked off the show with strong cuts like "Crash Test" and "One Word More." The duo's first album, Birds Fly South, dropped two weeks ago, and they're obviously thrilled at the chance to support fellow Texas native/current New York City resident Earle, both as opening act and backing players during his set.

Look past Masterson's indie fashion stylings and enjoy their haunting harmonies and aching folk rock, boosted immeasurably by Whitmore (who kind of looks like a grown-up Merida from Pixar's Brave), whose voice is how we imagine Lucinda Williams might sound if she bothered to take care of her pipes.

And then there was Steve. What can you say about the hardcore troubadour? Left for dead and back again, now more respected and powerful than ever. With his longtime backing band the Dukes (drummer Will Rigby and bassist Kelly Looney, abetted by Masterson on guitar/pedal steel and Whitmore on guitar/fiddle/piano), he took the stage around 8:45 and, for two solid hours, played a set that drew heavily on his latest release (2011's I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive), yet still reached all the way back to his 1986 debut album, Guitar Town.

Critics seem to agree that last album harks back to a more country vibe, and the fact that the first five songs he played -- all from that album -- blended so seamlessly with the rest of the set is evidence of the man's songwriting prowess. Hell, "Waiting on the Sky" would've sounded at home on El Corazon, while "Molly-O" makes for a fine (if sinister) B-side to "The Galway Girl" off Transcendental Blues.

Still, you could pretty easily divide the show into three sections. If those first songs were The New Stuff, then what followed have to be considered The Faves. Starting with his love letter to south Houston ("Telephone Road"), continuing through "My Old Friend the Blues," "Someday" (quite the raucous response to this Guitar Town track), and sewing up the crowd with "Copperhead Road" and "Ben McCulloch."

Though we saw one woman get up for a bathroom break during "Copperhead Road." Who the hell does that?

While much of Earle's music is politically charged. the final section of the regular set could easily be categorized as The Rabblerousers. Give the man this: He sticks to his guns. Plenty of musicians can get away with making fun of Bush (the most easily mockable President since Coolidge), but few would have the balls to write a sympathetic song about the American Taliban.

Hell, it wasn't particularly ballsy of Earle to say "Fuck BP" to a Gulf Coast audience, but he got some sporadic boos for saying that "unions are a fundamental part of democracy" (before labor ballad "The Mountain") and lovingly describing his ethnically diverse NYC neighborhood ("City of Immigrants"). Though to be fair, there was more applause than not.

Similarly, we found ourselves wondering about the show's apparent sponsorship by 93Q Country. Has 93Q played a post-1997 Steve Earle song...ever? Rocks Off is willing to bet their copy of Jerusalem has never been removed from its shrinkwrap.

Finishing strong with "Taneytown" and "Hardcore Troubador," Earle had one last surprise for us: a nifty little Houston-friendly encore consisting of "Ft. Worth Blues," "Home to Houston" and topping it off with "Francine," a little ditty from a band you might have heard of called ZZ Top.

It was a fitting farewell to a town he clearly still loves, even if it hasn't always been that kind to him.

Personal Bias: Rocks Off used to sing "Ft. Worth Blues" to our firstborn daughter to get her to sleep. We also married a girl with "hair of black and eyes of blue," but she's from Pittsburgh, not Galway.

The Crowd: Older, respectful, if not entirely on board with Earle's liberal sympathies.

Overheard in the Crowd: "I wish I'd gotten to see Steve Fromholz play before he died."

Random Notebook Dump: Fromholz is alive, you fucking idiot.



Ft. Worth Blues Home to Houston Francine (ZZ Top cover)

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