One night last week when the Tiny Goddess was out for dinner with two former co-workers, I went and saw country-roots-rocker STEVE EARLE at the El Rey Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The El Rey is an art deco building that was once a movie palace and is now a first-class venue for music on "the Miracle Mile." I'd seen great shows there before by Lucinda Williams when she was doing full album plus "greatest hits" shows and Emmylou Harris doing a record launch with a very well behaved Ryan Adams as her opening act, so I had high expectations.
Was I ever glad I went!! I've been a fan of Steve's ever since GUITAR TOWN came out in 1986 and should have seen him years ago. But I was hesitant to take the TG to a show, afraid that he would rock too loud or twang too hard for her. So when she had this dinner set up, it became the perfect night for me to go solo and get Steve Earle off my Bucket List.
As if I didn't know before, this concert proved to me that Steve is a Major American Artist. I judge musical performers like Steve by three criteria: songwriting, singing, and general bandleading/music making. On all three counts, Steve excels.
As a songwriter, I believe that he is right up there, just below Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison, as one of the best songwriters around – as good a songwriter as Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young or Ray Davies or Pete Townshend or Joni Mitchell or John Fogerty or Dwight Yoakam or Lyle Lovett or Lucinda Williams or whosever in your personal pantheon.
Steve has recorded sixteen studio albums, and I have some but not all of them. (I do have about two dozen bootlegs; more on them later.) Steve has a new bluesy album TERRAPLANE out, so during the concert, he sang quite a few songs that I didn't know. And those songs, unknown to me, blew my mind: they were all great, hooky, smart, solid songs, just like he's written all these years. I came out of the concert thinking, 'I've got to buy this new album and fill in all the gaps in my Steve Earle collection.' He's that good, that consistent. I should have ALL his music.
As a singer, Steve surprised me with his effectiveness. He just turned sixty, but his voice is as strong as ever. In fact, he did some really passionate singing and harmonica-playing that truly grabbed me. I always think that performers try extra hard in LA because someone they know – or someone they want to impress – is in the audience. In fact, before one song, Steve said, "I wrote this song when I lived a few blocks away from here."
As a bandleader, Steve has always had superb back-up bands. Sometimes they are called The Dukes, sometimes The Bluegrass Dukes, sometimes The Dukes and the Duchesses. In one of the great moves of his career, he teamed up with the Del McCoury Band, one of the most celebrated traditional bluegrass bands, to produce the masterpiece "THE MOUNTAIN."
Steve is also a great talker: a wiseguy with a big, profane, witty mouth. Legend has it that Del McCoury, a devout Christian, quit the tour with Steve because he cursed too much on stage. Other people say that it was really over money, but I say print the legend.
Steve looks kind of strange now, in an Old Testament beard. He was once a young stud, and now he looks like an old man who sits on a park bench, talking to himself and shouting at passersby. But his talk was clever, and the music was choice. The current version of the Dukes was only four pieces behind Steve: his long-time bassist Kelly Looney, drummer Will Rigby, and a husband-wife team, the Mastersons. While the musicianship wasn't on the Olympian level of past Dukes such as Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, the band was hot enough.
Steve looks strange, but he is a confident, almost cocky performer. (He knows he's good; why lie?) At one point, he sang a famous, sometimes-censored lyric from "Guitar Town" -- "Everybody told me you can't far / On thirty-seven dollars and a Jap guitar." – and interpolated "WATCH!!" right after – proud of what he's done and continues to do.
As I might have mentioned in a past blog, I used to collect concert bootlegs from my favorite musicians. It became quite a time-consuming hobby, and I broke it off when downloading concerts on Dimeadozen and other BitTorrent sites became the accepted way to share music. But here are the Steve Earle shows I collected.
Chestnut Cabaret (Philadelphia - 7/18/87) (2 CD)
Town and Country Club (London/BBC – 11/29/88)
Variety Playhouse (Atlanta - 11/30/95)(2 CD)
*Great American Music Hall (1/17/96)(2 CD)
*Theatre of Living Arts (Philadelphia, PA – 3/20/96)(2 CD)
Cold Creek Correctional Facility (Henning, TN – 6/25/96)
*Bluenote (Columbia, MD – 10/22/97)(2 CD)
*Heavy Metal Bluegrass (Bern – 11/16/97)(2 CD)
Tradewinds (Seabright, NJ)(w/Bruce Springsteen)(2/6/98)(2 CD)
*Mississippi Night (St. Louis - 6/19/98)(2 CD)
*St. Gallen Open Air Festival (Sitterbuhne, Switzerland)(6/27/98)
Ryman Auditorium (with Emmylou Harris + Jackson Browne)(4/12/99)(2 CD)
*Station Inn (Nashville, TN – 11/12/99) (2 CD)
Riviera Theatre (Chicago - 2/23/01)
*Luftschloss (Berlin, Germany – 3/12/03)(2 CD)
*Telluride Bluegrass Festival (Telluride, CO – 6/19/04)
*High Sierra Music Festival (7/3/04)(2 CD)
With the Bluegrass Dukes (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, SF, CA – 10/1/05)
*Rocky Grass Festival (Planet Bluegrass Ranch, Lyons, CO – 7/29/06)(2 CD)
Alternate Guitar Town (Outtakes and Idiot's Delight Interview)
The shows with * were guaranteed excellent sound.
So I had a pretty good idea of what he could do in concert. But there is no substitute for seeing someone live. The price was right, even including the $12 beer.
Despite his considerable artistic achievements including writing a novel, a play, and a book of short stories as well as a small acting career on THE WIRE, TREME, and a few other shows, Steve might always be more famous for his personal life and political stances than his music. Married seven times to five different women, Steve was a heroin addict for many years. He served time in jail. He is a strong advocate for his beliefs, speaking out against capital punishment, the abuses of the prison system, economic injustice, and war. He is willing to be provocative; one of his most controversial songs is "John Walker's Blues" about the American Taliban fighter.
"I'm just an American boy raised on MTV
And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads
But none of 'em looked like me
So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no God but God
If my daddy could see me now – chains around my feet
He don't understand that sometimes a man
Has got to fight for what he believes
And I believe God is great, all praise due to him
And if I should die, I'll rise up to the sky
Just like Jesus, peace be upon him
We came to fight the Jihad and our hearts were pure and strong
As death filled the air, we all offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom
But Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed
Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack
To the land of the infidel
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah"
Not your regular roots-rocker, shake-yer-ass stuff, right? He is willing to be a challenging, abrasive artist. Which is a brave thing these days.
On another level, I love Steve for his "Hardcore Troubadour" radio show on Sirius Radio's Outlaw Country station (my #3 pre-set after the Metropolitan Opera and Howard Stern.) Every Saturday night, Steve does an hour show devoted to some choice subject: famous recording studios, "this year in music," etc. And it's like a listening session with an older friend who knows a ton about music and has an unlimited record collection. Occasionally he'll have an in-studio guest like Alejandro Escovedo or Rodney Crowell. He's super-smart and super-funny. He does the show from hotel rooms when he's on the road or from his apartment in Greenwich Village. (Living in the Village has re-connected Steve to so many of his musical and left-wing avatars, that it has re-invigorated his music ... as if he needed it.)
With three Grammys, and two biographies and one documentary about him, Steve Earle is still going strong. As he says, with all the ex-wives he has and alimony has to pay, he can't stop now.
recent Steve with the current Dukes – his last appearance on David Letterman – from TERRAPLANE – "You're the Best Lover I've Ever Had"—this is what my concert at the El Rey was like
With the Del McCoury Band – "I Still Carry You Around"
"Graveyard Shift" and "Nashville Cats"
"My Old Friend the Blues" – from Farm Aid
Steve Earle – a documentary and show from Fort Pillow Prison Farm -- 1996
recent Steve from KEXP Seattle – solo, acoustic
vintage Steve on David Letterman – singing and bantering with Dave