Steve Earle At City Winery, Monday, February 19th, 2018, Reviewed
Well, lightning didn’t strike twice. The January iteration of Steve Earle’s annual City Winery residency started with fifteen minutes of pure, Earle. Last night, song for song, except for “Fuck The FCC,” eventually he performed them all but it wasn’t the concentrated force of January’s performance. There were reasons for this, first among them was the Parkland Massacre. Earle’s second song was “The Devil’s Right Hand,” where he, not inaccurately, concluded that this had to stop. Earle started with the story when out of stir and only five months clean, the recovering drug addict’s son was landed on his lap and promptly hid Earle’s gun collection. I’ve heard him tell the story before, but it is well told, and concludes with Steve never owning a gun again. But the point of US children killing and killed was better taken during a moribund “Tom Ames Prayer,” a young man’s short life as an exuberant ride into Butch and Sundance land, and even death, and an MIA God, can’t derail the joys of bad behavior. Steve chose to take it slow and derail the melody a little, it wasn’t fun any more, nothing about Ames choices were good, especially not his last. I’ve never found that “I can see you’re heading for trouble, son, and your mother wouldn’t understand” painfully sad till now.
Put together, the evening seemed a little too serious, and, catching it the second time in a month, a little too canned. Earle is a talented guy but he has a lot of baggage, and the more you see him, the clearer that becomes. He opened with his broken up with another wife already goner “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now,” ended with a song about losing love, and later made his old “my ex-wives need the money” crack, later still in accessing life as a single man in his sixties noted that he had seen “Hamilton” three times because it is easier to get a single ticket, and got to watch as much baseball as he wanted, could sit anywhere he liked at the movie house… and yet, given this is the man who wrote (and played, during a for the ladies segment) “Every Part of Me” and dubbed himself a romantic, he was probably only fooling himself.
Actually, I think the problem with the nearly 105 minute set is that Earle seemed a little sad and it is off putting. Maybe it’s his singing, a melodic croak that seems wrapped in a battleground against all the outside forces -his singing is almost melancholic, almost elemental. Earle is at his best not on “Jerusalem,” and not when digging into his belief in God, but on the heart aching “Goodbye”. It’s like he isn’t who he appears to be, and, 23 years sober, like all us junkies, there is a part of himself missing and he can’t figure out how to fill it.
After being very impressed with the January gig (my review here), I went all the way on this one, investing $100 for a meet and greet (the selfie is below). M&G’s are not interviews, I am not obligated to voice my doubts, such as how in the 2010s Steve has found himself capable of not much more than two great songs an album. I’m not claiming that the rest of the songs sucked, but the consistency of his post-Prison 1990s output isn’t there. Instead I asked him about modern country (“Women are the best thing about it”), he asked me where I was from, and then he recommended David Broza of Peace Now’s “Things Will Get Better” -a delicate folk song for a hopelessly utopian vision of Israel and the Palestinians. Then I shook his hand and left him to his ice-cream sundae while a pizza remained untouched on the table.
Opening act was Mike Mattison, who sometimes sings with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Earle claims TTB is the greatest band in the world. Sure, if the competition is Govt Mule and Phish. Mattison has a terrific soul busting voice so my problem isn’t that, it is my antipathy to the genre, country blues aka some form of Americana. The songs dragged me though the performances, really it was Scrapomatic -his blues band which he dubbed solo but really only the acousticness adhered to Earle’s constants. Except for “Midnight In Harlem” I didn’t know the material though the one I knew was my favorite. I did like Mike’s easygoing demeanor and self-deprecation (his “I better rehearse more” was a self-assessment on his fine guitar picking), plus a band that uses a guitar case as a snare drum can’t be all bad, so let’s agree to differ.
Earle’s guitar picking is always fine, he is a celebrity gone local and a man with a backstory that just won’t quit, his City Winery performances are similar dissimilar, better solo than with a band though you better believe I’d love to see his “Steve Earle and The Dukes: Copperhead Row 30th Anniversary Show” next month (the closest he gets is a New Haven gig, the closest we got was the title track, late in the evening). Seeing it the second time, the seams of the performance become clearer but without distracting from his skills as a true American hero, a John Wayne loner tough guy who matured into a voice of liberalism and fair play. “Never say never, never give up, cherish the good, and you never can tell,” were Steve’s last words to us before tearing our hearts apart with “The Girl On the Mountain”. No wonder we’re depressed.