Steve Earle & the Dukes and Duchesses House of Blues July 6, 2011
During her sublime set at Verizon a couple of weeks ago, Emmylou Harris mentioned how she thought Barack Obama was pretty okay, and how she hoped his election meant our society had evolved beyond the events depicted in her ballad "My Name Is Emmett Till" - black man, white woman, angry Mississippi '50s townsfolk, bad result. Although Aftermath didn't even mention it in our review, apparently that was all several people who commented on it took away from the show. And something about NASA.
So let us just get this out of the way up front: If you work in the energy industry, you might not like this review very much either. Besides giving his new "sea chantey" "Gulf of Mexico" a "Fuck BP" tagline and a hearty flip of the bird, Wednesday night Steve Earle prefaced lonely Appalachian waltz "The Mountain" (which is about coal) with a brief soliloquy about his belief that humanity needs to step up its development of alternative fuel sources posthaste, drawing a mixture of cheers and catcalls.
Aftermath understands that many people feel they have a right to buy a ticket to a show and not be lectured to; we fail to understand how anyone can buy a ticket to a Steve Earle show and not realize he's going to say and do pretty much as he damn well pleases...
...which, it turned out, was play a nearly three-hour show (two sets, two encores) that was much heavier on ghosts and spirits than polemics, and had the unseemly habit of rocking like a mother when it wasn't tugging your heartstrings. Take a bow, Mrs. Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, whose barbecue-honey voice cured "A Change Is Gonna Come" into a gorgeous Stax confection that was more Otis Redding than Sam Cooke, but no doubt had both men beaming from above.
"I'm not really a political songwriter," Earle said in those pre-"Mountain" remarks. "Most of my songs are about girls." Indeed. Dead ones and live ones, as in Irish twins "Molly-O" and "Galway Girl," and dear ones like the object of "Every Part of Me," which was so tender it threatened to float off into the rafters on Earle's wounded-puppy-dog vocals alone. His tributes to mentor Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho & Lefty" and "To Live's To Fly," were as spiritually heartfelt as they were musically threadbare.
But he's no softie. Besides that BP dig, Earle took some poor highfalutin sod down a few pegs to the strains of Eleanor Whitmore's warped Cajun fiddle on "Little Emperor," lurked the shadows with a rusty Tom Waits switchblade on "Meet Me In the Alleyway" and poked at the bones of a dead Texas Ranger and Confederate general on the tough-as-nails "Ben McCulloch." Long stretches of the first set, which began at a simmer with several songs from new CD I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive and reached a smolder on "Telephone Road" and "Someday," were as sepia-toned as an old Civil War daguerreotype.
Others, not so much. The Dukes and Duchesses began the second set with both barrels blazing on "Copperhead Road." Earle/Moorer duet "Days Are Never Long Enough" had a whiff of the chiming folk-rock of the Jayhawks and R.E.M. circa Out of Time, as did Moorer's solo turn "Broken Girl" and lead guitarist/ex-Houstonian Chris Masterson's showpiece with wife Whitmore, "The Other Shoe." "Taneytown," which ironically is actually set in the 19th century, was a dead ringer (haha) for Tom Petty's "Last Dance With Mary Jane."
But if there's one classic-rock band Earle venerates above all others, it's ZZ Top - from his Billy F. Gibbons Starter Beard to the rambling tale he told before "Telephone Road" about driving here from San Antonio to see the trio astride a monster classic-rock bill at Jeppesen Stadium in 1972, and most of all enlisting Masterson et. al. to kick up massive clods of Rio Grande mud on a ripping cover of the Top's early hit "Francine."
Besides "Copperhead," the only other rock moments that even approached "Francine" Wednesday were "The Revolution Starts Now," Foo Fighters run through a Skynyrd blender, and "The Unrepentant," which closed out the three-hour show with fangs bared and knuckles bloodied. "Hard-Core Troubador," meanwhile, mostly reminded Aftermath that somehow we had managed to watch Talladega Nights three separate times over the Fourth of July weekend.
So other than the odd reminder that we really should look into this whole "getting a life" thing, Aftermath's only problem with the show was that the baritone Duane Eddy guitar lick in "Guitar Town" was present and accounted for, but its swirling B-3 organ counterpart was not. As far as we're concerned, Earle can take all the time he wants out of the set to talk about causes that are important to him, but leaving our favorite instrumental part out of one of our favorite songs is simply unforgivable.
And no, we're not kidding.
Personal Bias: Got a two-pack habit and a motel tan.
The Crowd: About Earle's age, plus scattered younger hardcore troubadors. A little chatty, but better-behaved than they were punctual - the place didn't fill up until nearly intermission.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Shhhh!" Thank you, Jesus.
Also: "You're too young for this shit" (during "Guitar Town")
Random Notebook Dump ("The Revolution Starts Now"): The chords are about as frayed as my nerves.
*Waitin' On the Sky *Little Emperor *Gulf of Mexico *Molly-O *Every Part of Me City of Immigrants Telephone Road My Old Friend the Blues Someday Guitar Town Days Are Never Long Enough A Soft Place to Fall (Allison Moorer) Broken Girl (Allison Moorer) A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke; Allison Moorer)
Copperhead Road Galway Girl Ben McCulloch The Mountain Longtime bassist Kelly Looney sings a very Levon Helm-ish song
*Meet Me In the Alleyway *God Is God *Heaven or Hell Pancho & Lefty (Townes) The Other Shoe (Mastersons) *This City Taneytown Hard-Core Troubador The Revolution Starts Now
I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (Hank Williams) Hillbilly Highway To Live's To Fly (Townes)
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Francine (ZZ Top) Home to Houston The Unrepentant
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