Sunday, 29 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Steve Earle and the Dukes - O2 Institute, Birmingham. Saturday 28th July 2018

The past, present and future were all brought to the forefront as Steve Earle hurtled towards the conclusion of this latest UK tour; another successful one with the ‘mighty’ Dukes in tow. Fiddle, steel, bass, drums and lead guitar is a starter to get the juices going, especially when the practitioners are so good and the guy up front happens to be one of the legends of American music over the last thirty years. A full two-hour performance in addition to The Mastersons opening up and rapturous reports from the other gigs made this most recent Birmingham stop-off an opportunity ultimately unmissable.

The past stretches back in excess of thirty years and ‘Guitar Town’ sounds as fresh and vibrant as when it sprung Steve Earle to the masses in the mid-eighties. That and a raft of other standards from the catapult years inevitably drew the highest level of interaction. Who can resist the call and response to ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ and joining in on the chorus line of ‘My Old Friend the Blues’. 2018 is indeed the thirtieth anniversary of the iconic COPPERHEAD ROAD album and the frenzied drum insertion leading to the title track’s instrumental climax still sends down shivers. The back-to-back Celtic drill of ‘Johnny Come Lately’ and ‘The Galway Girl’ competes with anything out of the emerald isle, especially when the fiddle loosens up and the pedal steel guitar trades for accordion. Steadfastly linking the past and the present is long-term Dukes bassist Kelly Looney, consistently caressing the stand-up on the folk and the electric on the rock.

The present comes in two phases: the current Dukes line-up and the latest album. Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson aka duo act The Mastersons may well have been official Dukes for more than half a dozen years, but there is still a frequent appreciative glancing smile from their leader. Probably still grateful that he persuaded such an accomplished pair to rejuvenate a touring/recording band that has temporarily been sidelined over the years for more personally focussed projects. Eleanor’s fiddle provides the folk, Celtic and country edge, while Chris is a sensational lead guitarist rising to the challenge to lift the rock stuff into a different stratosphere. The two newest members of the Dukes are very much installed in the present. Drummer Brad Pemberton joined in 2016 and has a prestigious CV including being part of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals for a while. He immaculately kept beat all evening and of course delivered that spine tingling ‘Copperhead Road’ moment. Ricky Ray Jackson is the type of pedal steel player that falls of the Texas assembly line, thus ensuring that the country sound never strays too far even when the pace picks up.

The present is also about the album SO YOU WANNABE AN OUTLAW that was released last year and is the prime focal point for the 2018 Dukes excursions. The band fired off six straight tracks from the record before anybody took a breath. The only interlude being to salute the Californian firefighters prior to ‘The Firebreak Line’ and add a family element to ‘News from Colorado’. The pick of the new songs from both the opening segment and a few tossed into the rock finale just before the encore was the fiery title track and the melodic ‘Walkin’ in LA’.

Before we contemplate the future, a quick mention of three tracks. The inspirational spoken intro to ‘Jerusalem’ was a prelude to what to expect just before the curfew. Iris DeMent was given a shout out as the original duet partner on ‘I’m Still in Love You’, with Eleanor now ably stepping into her shoes. Ironically, Iris was on the same bill as Steve Earle and the Dukes at last weekend’s SummerTyne Festival in Gateshead. Finally, among a throng of Steve Earle-written tracks pushing nearly thirty in total there was room for one external cover and the choice of ‘Hey Joe’ was a wise one. It crowned a twenty-minute phase of the Dukes truly rocking out, perhaps to the extent of leaving the fiddle and steel trailing, as we headed into the obligatory encore. Glad to report that the old country sound returned as ‘Dixieland’ commenced the three-song extras.

Up to the final song of the evening, the focus had been entirely on the music. Frequently songs remained unintroduced as the band refused to yield a spirited and compelling momentum. Earle was effortlessly in control all evening, whether majoring on electric guitar, acoustic or mandolin. He was also clearly relishing every moment of being on stage. However, it was time to mount the sermon and preach what most Steve Earle fans expect and want to hear. A quick slaughter of the current political environment was followed by an announcement that the next record is going to be country and Political. 2020 is the expected release date and the topic is going to be based on addressing those natural allegiances of the left falling prey to the right. As his sixty-fifth year will be approaching then, there is likely to be no sign of the fire waning and therefore much unfinished business.The future awaits. 

From the thirty-minute opening support slot from The Mastersons, through the old favourites; the sterling musicianship and absorbing finale, every inch of this show at the O2 Institute in Birmingham was one to relish and savoured. You may have moments when Steve Earle is overshadowed in a crowded music industry keen to anoint any newcomer to the crown of a legend. Even some of his records may be inadvertently overlooked. This evening specifically, and in general the recent shows by Steve Earle and the Dukes are vivid reminders to what a great folk ‘n’ country, rock ‘n’ roll band they are and what a fantastic song writer Steve Earle is. Grab these moments while you can. The legends tag is still intact and yes… there is still unfinished business.