Review by Bokonon
The first time I saw Steve Earle live was at The Ritz in 1987.
He was the unannounced opening act for the Replacements, and he was in fact replacing the originally announced Green on Red. That was a good thing in my book. The then minty fresh “Guitar Town” was pretty much living on my turntable, whereas GOR’s “The Killer Inside Me” was boring my pants off and nobody wants to see that, not even back then.
The last time I saw Steve Earle was Sunday night, at Hudson’s Club Helsinki, and in some kind of weird time loop, I ended up watching the first part of the show over new Hudson resident Tommy Stinson’s shoulder.
I’m here to tell you the man rocks a trilby. Stinson. Not Earle. Earle is bald like me.
At The Ritz, in another lifetime, Earle was a fine young buck, playing the role of a Texas Springsteen in a white V-neck and slim blue jeans. In Hudson, he was all pate and beard, thumbpick and glasses.
But the songs are still there, and Earle owns Americana whether alone or with a band.
The latter was left at home, along with his wife and young son, all recuperating from a long, grueling tour. Not Earle. He’s an old school road dog, and despite the beautiful surroundings, he played it like a Houston bar gig.
Song. Song. Politics. Song.
That pretty much set the tone for the night, and it worked.
Early on it seemed like Earle might just be rehashing the recent tour setlist, and God knows he’s got enough favorites to go there – stuff like “My Old Friend the Blues,” “Goodbye” and the mandolin-driven “Galway Girl.”
Those sounded lovely, in that rough hewn Houston bar gig kind of way, as did stuff from his latest album, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
But the highlight of the night came when Earle reached back to those Texas roots, circa 1972, not long before he left the Lone Star for Nashville.
He’s done it before, but it’s always a delight when he dips into the Mance Lipscomb/Lightnin Hopkins blues bags, replete with tales of watching them squabble.
The former’s “So Different Blues” was raggy – as in ragtime, folks – the latter’s “Limousine Blues” (you can call it “My Starter Won’t Start,” “Automobile Blues” or whatever you’d like) was funky, mean and righteous, like Lightnin.
Of course, he capped all of that with Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues,” perfectly fusing Lipscomb’s grace, Hopkins’ grit and Van Zandt’s poetry.
“Copperhead Road” was, to use the term of art, ‘phoned in,’ with Earle looking for that single moment like he wanted to be just about anywhere else.
But he rallied with a brand new song bound to bring him more glorious trouble, “I’m Thinking ‘Bout Burning the Walmart Down.”
Good to see that the ‘Mats loaned him their sense of humor that night New York, even if none of the parties involved are likely to remember the meeting with any kind of clarity.
Scott Waldman’s review at The Times Union