Photos by Ebet Roberts
Steve Earle led a stellar crew through nearly three hours of music during his third annual benefit concert for The Keswell School, the New York City-based intensive educational program for children, teens and young adults on the Autism spectrum. Earle’s son, John Henry, attends. Fans and donors alike packed the house of Broadway’s Town Hall theatre, bringing some Nashville flair with them by way of cowboy boots, hats and plaid.
The Mastersons, a duo of husband and wife Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, have a long history of playing with Earle, both separately and as part of Steve’s band, the Dukes. They again tackled this dual role, kicking off the evening with a couple of songs, including a lovely cover of Ted Hawkins’ “Sorry You’re Sick,” then serving as stellar accompanists. Along with a dose of harmony, Masterson served up some hair-raising electric guitar solos while Whitmore deftly switched between several instruments, including guitar, mandolin and fiddle.
The crowd went wild for Lucinda Williams, second on the bill. In addition to the pre- and post-set uproar, a smattering of audience members gave her a standing ovation after each number of her short set, which included “World Without Tears,” “Drunken Angel,” and “Joy,” about which she quipped: “I wrote this as an unrequited love song, but now I’ve decided it’s a political song.”
Emmylou Harris graced the stage next, and Steve took the opportunity to acknowledge their history of overlapping advocacy work as well as musical collaboration. Their genuine, playful camaraderie shines through when they perform together, Steve claiming she’s “spoiled him rotten” by singing his songs over the years, and EmmyLou calling him “my captain.”
Their duet of “If You Needed Me” was true a standout of the night, with Emmylou’s rich, sweet harmonies complementing Earle’s huskier tone. She wove charming tales around much of her set, sharing memories from her early years in New York City, when she bagged groceries and sang at Gerde’s Folk City. In fact, she pulled largely from her earlier career, including two songs from Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town: “Two More Bottles of Wine” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.”
Finally, Earle and his Dukes leapt into the longest set of the night, packing in career-favorites (“Galway Girl,” “Copperhead Road”) as well as material from his new record, So You Wannabe an Outlaw. In some cases he moved from song to song without missing a beat, like the seamlessly joined “Fixin’ to Die” and his take on Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Other songs he introduced with passion, including “City of Immigrants,” a tribute to NYC (his adopted home of 13 years), which featured a singalong chorus.
A friend who’s seen Earle do his thing assured me his political discourse was toned down for evening, but no matter your politics, you have to admit that Earle’s a true blue rock n’ roller. He seems to take such delight in what he does, approaching each piece with an infectious exuberance, as if you can hear him saying — “wait, you just gotta hear this one more song.”
More than once, he called the current Dukes lineup the strongest ever, even noting, midway through his set before he launched into “A Week of Living Dangerously,” “We haven’t played this in years because we haven’t had the band for it. But now we do.”
Not long after a final standing ovation, the Dukes crew came back out for an encore, including a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and “Remember Me,” a heartstring-tugging tribute to son John Henry, the unseen star of the evening.
After an all-cylinders-firing evening of music, the party rolled on over to City Winery, where the rehearsal show took place the evening prior. I’d tell you all about that, but as someone probably once said, what happens at the VIP party stays at the VIP party. Guess you’ll just have to join us next year.