Steve Earle's Blues Go Over Big In a Blue State

Steve Earle and the Dukes
Criterion Theatre
Bar Harbor, ME
July 31, 2015

I've seen Steve Earle perform several times, even reviewing one of his shows for this very site back in 2012. One would rarely refer to the man's sets as "boisterous," especially in recent years, but perhaps there's something invigorating about playing in New England in July. With temps barely reaching into the 80s in Bar Harbor last Friday, Earle and the latest incarnation of the Dukes played a two-hour set heavy on tracks from his most recent release, Terraplane.

Perhaps some background is in order. I was in Bar Harbor on vacation, and if you care to do likewise, I can't recommend doing so in late summer enough. While the thermometer was creeping into the triple digits back here, we in the [checks Wikipedia] Pine Tree State were drinking coffee and wearing sweatshirts most mornings. My dad has lived up there since 2000, and also being an Earle fan, he bought tickets to his Criterion Theatre show several months ago.

The Criterion itself was built in 1932. Recently restored, it's now a nonprofit run by the Bar Harbor Jazz Festival. They've managed to turn the Art Deco theater into a special-events showcase and development space for young artists, as opposed to the run-down summer theater it had become by the late '90s. It was also the perfect venue for Earle, known for eschewing larger, corporate-sponsored venues in favor of those like the 877-seat Criterion.

For not the first time, the Mastersons were the opening act. Chris Masterson and wife Eleanor Whitmore are familiar to Earle fans (though the former's platinum blond 'do is weirdly new) and have made enough of an impression on the man himself that they're now lead guitarist and violin/keyboard player (respectively) for the Dukes. Their set was a perfunctory 30 minutes, but songs like "Birds Fly South" — introduced as a way to explain why they fled New York winters — and "Cautionary Tale," the duo's plea to re-humanize communication in an era of ubiquitous cell-phone use, were well-received.

No word on how the pitch to pick up some Mastersons merch went, however (Chris' reasoning: "Mama wants a lobster roll").

Earle's set began with several cuts from the new release, including the inventively titled "Baby Baby Baby (Baby)" and "You're the Best Lover That I Ever Had." Songs from Terraplane bled into the so-called 'chick music' section of the show, with "Acquainted with the Wind" joining the likes of "The Galway Girl" and "Sparkle and Shine."

Some might have taken issue with the relative lack of heavyweight cuts. And to be fair, some expected highlights made their appearances. "Guitar Town" showed up early on, as did stalwart cover "Hey Joe" and "Copperhead Road," though the latter was so muddied by vocal distortion I almost wished he hadn't bothered, maybe slipping "Fort Worth Blues" or "Taneytown" in there instead. And I was a bit surprised by the omission of "Telephone Road."

But I was probably one of the outliers. The Criterion was sold out and, "Copperhead Road" aside, the band was in fine form. Masterson is a deceptively adept blues guitarist, while Whitmore seriously seems like she can play anything with strings or keys, and bassist Kelley Looney and drummer Will Rigby demonstrated why Earle has kept them around as long as he has.

Plus, this being blue-state territory, those in attendance were largely on Earle's side of the political spectrum, yelling boisterously at the end when Earle off-handedly mentioned his endorsement of Democratic Presidential contender Bernie Sanders. A close second was when he introduced "That All You Got?" by name checking the HBO series Treme, a show he performed on and I'd argue fewer than a fraction of those in attendance ever watched.

They were, perhaps, more "polite" when it came to Earle's frequent dissertations on the inspirations behind Terraplane and his efforts to make a blues record. The man's own history (including well-documented drug problems and the end of his seventh marriage) makes him perhaps more qualified to sing the blues than just about any white man alive, but you could feel some impatience when he held forth about his affection for Texas bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.

Then again, at the end we saw something unfamiliar (to me anyway) in Houston shows, as a good portion of the crowd surged forward during the encore to dance for the last few songs. Of course, it may just been a response to "Dixieland" (and its callout to the 20th Maine), or possibly an attempt to get some air movement going. Was I bragging about the low temperatures earlier? The flip side to the temperate New England summer climate is the lack of air conditioning in most buildings, and by the end of the show, it was well into the 90s, especially in the balcony where we were sitting.

Earle and company aren't swinging back through Houston for the foreseeable future, so if you have the wherewithal, I highly recommend seeing them on this leg of the tour, maybe when they're in Canada. Or you could just wait until next month, when he'll be in Austin.

Personal Bias: I generally skew towards mid-period Earle (El Corazon, Transcendental Blues), but Terraplane is arguably one of the best albums of the year.

The Crowd: Khakis, polos, gray hair, with a smattering of bikers.

Overheard In The Crowd: "Mance who?"

Random Notebook Dump: "Chris Masterson's roots are showing."
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar