Steve Earle has always inhabited an intriguing realm as part scholar, part chameleon in his music. For the most part, especially in the years following his arrests and subsequent sobriety in the 90s, he has made albums that dwell in the lexicon of American music. Whether it be country, bluegrass, Appalachian and even more Celtic-influenced, Steve Earle has approached every style with the fascination of someone who wants to understand its roots and share his newfound knowledge with his audience, and also as a fan who simply wants to play that kind of music. On his newest album, Terraplane, Steve Earle chose the blues as his study, and it was the blues that dominated his show at the Paramount Theater in Austin on Thursday.
Following a set from charming country duo The Mastersons – who are conveniently members of Steve Earle’s band the Dukes – the hard-core troubadour took the stage and, with little more than a wave, said, “this one’s for Clifford Antone” before tearing into a gruff blues tune on harmonica. Conjuring the spirit and growl of Howlin’ Wolf, Earle rolled out a handful of blues tunes off Terraplane before jumping back a couple decades to the appropriately timed “My Old Friend The Blues”. The triple attack of early hits “Someday”, “Guitar Town”, and “Copperhead Road” injected a healthy dose of energy into the middle of the set and harkened back to a time when Earle was less of a folklorist and more of a Texan Bruce Springsteen singing tales of small town life. With the crowd already on their feet in praise, the band kept the rock and roll momentum going with later material, including an especially poignant “I Thought You Should Know” and the Celtic-tinged “Galway Girl”. After the darkly confessional one-two punch of “South Nashville Blues” and “CCKMP (Cocaine Can’t Kill My Pain)” Earle jolted the band back into the blues with a pounding cover of Howlin’ Rain’s “Forty-Four” followed by most of the other tunes off Terraplane. These songs shined especially bright with the peculiar, mind-boggling ability of Eleanor Whitmore play the blues on a fiddle and produce a bevy of sounds to give the music something to stand apart from fully traditional blues. The band’s towering cover of “Hey Joe” was its own fire-breathing dragon and one of the most impressive versions of that classic tune this writer has ever heard. Guitarist Chris Masterson exploded out of the gate with a wretchedly gorgeous solo that showed he’s got far more than country music in his toolkit. One of the show’s highlights came soon after when Earle treated the audience to a performance of his just released single “Mississippi, It’s Time”, a blunt and biting reflection on the recent Confederate flag fiasco.
It’s hard not to marvel at Steve Earle’s ability to put together a setlist that does his catalogue justice given the sheer volume of great albums under his belt. Somehow though, he managed to touch on just about everything while still playing nearly all of his new album and appeasing every fan in the room. True to his deep love for American music, Earle couldn’t resist touching on as many styles as he possibly could in just over two hours. Closing out with “The Revolution Starts Now” and his take on “Wild Thing”, Steve Earle bid goodnight in a fiery wreckage of glorious guitar feedback, leaving the crowd with their jaws on the ground.
Photos by Arthur VanRooy.