Photos By Ebet Roberts
An LA punk-rock star might not be the obvious choice to open for outlaw-Americana troubadour Steve Earle, but Earle’s decisions rarely fit into the “obvious” category. X frontman and actor John Doe gave us a half-hour acoustic set of originals, including a smattering of new tunes, and definitely won himself a few new fans this night. Doe’s songs lean toward the Dark Side; his stage name definitely suggests unclaimed bodies, not Bambi’s relatives. Introducing one song, Doe recalled that a number of people have said they played it at their wedding. “Have listened to the words?” he asks them, incredulously.
Doe crafts good songs and has a terrific voice, but for this listener, the highlight came at the end, when Earle joined Doe to perform a particularly moving rendition of Merle Haggard’s touching “Silver Wings,” and brought the house down.
Introducing himself, Steve Earle told us, “I was Americana, but I got fired. I won three Grammys in ‘Progressive Folk,’ then they changed it to ‘Americana,’ and I’m out.”
Well, not exactly “out.” Earle, who remains very matter-of-fact about his rough Texas roots, drug use, jail time and fistful of wives, has maintained a mostly successful career, what scientists would call “punctuated equilibrium,” a phrase used to describe volcanic eruptions or avalanches, i.e., “It was going well right up until the day it wasn’t.” After all, one can’t expect a lifetime of genteel behavior from a high school dropout who ran away from home at 14 to follow his hero, anti-hero Townes Van Zandt (after whom Earle named his firstborn son). Just guessing, but I believe his recurring name for himself and his groups, the Dukes, likely refers to fists or John Wayne rather than royalty or David Bowie.
Some 17 albums and many Grammy considerations later, Earle packs venues all over the country, including his five-night residency at City Winery, which sold out. When an audience member shouted out a request, Earle answered, “My intention is to play one song from every album, but I get to pick ‘em.” He chose well. One of my personal favorites, “Copperhead Road,” made the list, as did the hauntingly tender “Goodbye” (“I recall all of them nights down in Mexico…was I just off somewhere, or just too high? But I can’t remember if we said goodbye.”).
Though the entire set consisted of Earle and acoustic guitar (with encore on mandolin) the well-versed audience identified virtually every song by its intro, and Earle’s mix of familiar and deep cuts held us spellbound. Watch a video of one song from that set, “Billy Austin” online, or better still, catch Steve Earle in an intimate setting like City Winery, and experience it for yourself. Powerful stuff, but what else would we expect from a Duke?
– Suzanne Cadgène