Written by Jane Ponte
Since moving to Texas, it has become a time-honored tradition of sorts for me to see Steve Earle & The Dukes at least once a year. Fortunately, this has not been difficult to do. Earle loves the city of Houston—the whole state of Texas, really. Since my relocating to Texas from Missouri about 7 years ago, I’ve seen Earle & his Dukes at least 8 times. So far, so good, when it comes to honoring my tradition. And because it’s always a blast when Mr. Earle comes to town, last Friday night’s performance at The Heights Theater in Houston was no exception.
Accompanied by his seasoned band, The Dukes, Earle is presently touring in support of his latest album, “Guy,” (New West Records). This collection of 16 songs is Earle’s interpretation of some of the late songwriter Guy Clark’s best-known work. Clark, who passed away in 2016, was one of Earle’s mentors and best friends, and the subject matter of Earle’s song, “Goodbye, Michelangelo,” from Earle’s 2017 release, “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw.” The last line from that song succinctly sums up Earle’s respect and reverence for Clark: “…Cause you taught me everything I know/ Goodbye Michelangelo,” and this veneration was made crystal clear in the 2 hours that Earle and his band graced the stage in front of the packed house last Friday.
Setting the tone for the evening was a lovely and noteworthy set by The Mastersons, the husband and wife duo comprised of Chris Masterson (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Eleanor Whitmore (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, vocals). The duo, who are also members of Earle’s band, The Dukes, took the stage at 8 pm sharp and entertained their appreciative audience for a beautiful and thought-provoking 40-minute set comprised of both their older and soon-to-be-released newer material. Their lush harmonies and the passion with which they execute their songs is undeniable, and their delightful set was over much too soon. Highlights included “Don’t Tell Me to Smile, “from their 2017 release, “Transient Lullaby,” and “Eyes Open Wide,” and “In the Name of God,” both of which will be included in their new release, which is yet to be titled. Truly, The Mastersons are a force to be reckoned with all on their own, and they continue to push the envelope—both musically and politically—as they improve with each new release.
By the time Steve Earle & The Dukes hit the stage, I was perfectly primed to hear from one of my all-time favorite artists on the planet. Earle and The Dukes launched right into a Guy classic, “Dublin Blues,” and followed it with “Texas 1947,” another tune from Earle’s mentor. It was not until the 6th song of the evening that Earle played some of his own material. After hearing “Rita Ballou,” “Heartbroke,” and a soaring rendition of “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” Earle finally treated his crowd to “The Mercenary Song” and “Tom Ames’ Prayer,” both off his 1995 Grammy-nominated album, “Train a-Comin.” As much as I enjoy the new album from Earle and applaud him for honoring the memory of his friend with such reverence and integrity, I was thrilled to hear him play a few songs from the hundreds of masterpieces he has written over his 4+ decades long career. He followed up with “Fort Worth Blues,” and eventually made his way into playing a couple of songs that perhaps he is best known for, “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road.”
Throughout the rest of his flawless, nearly two-hour set, Earle basically alternated between his own material and Clark’s tunes from the new album. Stellar performances of “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me,” “Goodbye,” “The Randall Knife,” and “L.A. Freeway” filled the venue with both the genius of Earle and Clark, as Earle regaled the audience with hilarious tidbits from his years of friendship with Clark and touching stories of their journey through the years together. Looking at my phone to check the time every now and again, I felt a twinge of sadness around the hour and a half mark, knowing that this superb evening of musical mastery, interwoven with precious snippets of Earle’s personal history with his mentor would soon be coming to an end.
Although Earle is a master craftsman when it comes to the art of songwriting, I must take a moment to acknowledge what I consider to be the best “Posse of Dukes” Earle has ever had as his bandmates. Being a diehard, lifelong fan, it did not take me but a second to realize that his long-time friend and bassist, Kelley Looney, was missing from the lineup on this particular evening. Instead, Earle’s pedal steel player, Ricky Ray Jackson, stepped in to fill Looney’s shoes while he was down for the evening with an illness. Looney has been with Earle since 1988, and has stuck by him through years of recording, touring, and personal and professional ups and downs. While the palpable camaraderie that the 2 friends share on stage together was missed, Jackson did a stellar job of filling in and the show was a shining example of the prowess of The Dukes. Joining Jackson were the aforementioned duo of Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, and Brad Pemberton on drums. These folks are all so steeped in the genres of bluegrass, folk, and rock & roll that they are a natural fit for Earle’s gritty songwriting, and the ease with which they throw down their craft is undownable. Earle could not find a better band to showcase his songs if he tried. Quite simply, they’re The Dukes of all Dukes, and Earle is a lucky man to be able to call them all both bandmates and friends.
As the 2-hour mark came quickly around, Earle rounded out the evening with a couple of tunes from his 2017 release, “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw” (Warner Bros records). The title track was followed by “Fixin’ to Die,” and Clark’s “Old Friends,” which became a singalong as Earle finished out the evening, asking his crowd to join in the chorus a couple of times for his departed friend and mentor. While Earle graciously thanked his enthusiastic crowd and waved goodbye, I found myself already hoping for a 2 or 3 song encore, which has usually been the norm for Earle at the dozens of shows I’ve attended over the years. A few minutes later I got my wish, as he and The Dukes returned for a 3-song encore that included Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street,” followed by a rousing rendition of Earle’s “Sweet Little ’66.” The cherry on top was Steve’s rollicking version of “Pink Cadillac,” another Springsteen tune, which finally closed out the evening and left the crowd wishing that this brilliant man and his kick ass band would stick around for at least another hour or two.
Steve Earle has often been considered a somewhat polarizing figure in the world of music, but his fans will tell you that his dedication to the art of songwriting and outspoken politics, combined with his colorful-yet-flawed personality is what makes him one of the greatest troubadours of our time. When you attend a Steve Earle show, be prepared to receive a heaping helping of humanity, a gallon of grittiness, and a slab of sincerity, all served up by a guy who has paid his dues and continues to leave his heart and soul on stages all across the world, night after night. Flawed and outspoken, it is evident that Earle loves his work and has no intention of stopping. Earle and his bandmates left us all completely fulfilled and looking forward to the next time last Friday in Houston, and I’m already set to go do it all again. Thanks, Mr. Earle. See you next time.