Live Review: Steve Earle and The Dukes @ The Birchmere — 5/20/19

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Steve Earle performs at The Birchmere on May 20, 2019. (Photo by Ari Strauss)

Steve Earle came out to introduce the show Monday night at The Birchmere. He welcomed the audience to the Guy Tour, and said he’d been looking forward to this for a long time. He told us we’d hear a lot of Guy Clark’s songs and a lot of his songs.

But first, Steve introduced his opening act, the Mastersons, a duo who also play in Steve’s band, The Dukes: guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddler/vocalist Elinor Whitmore. Parklife DC photographer Ari pointed out that Steve adds a touch of class to show with this introduction; he shows respect.

On May 20, Steve Earle and The Dukes put on a somewhat streamlined performance at The Birchmere. Steve talked less than he usually does, but the band still packed in a ton of songs. They started with Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” and the audience cheered when Steve sang, “I have seen Doc Watson play Columbus-Stuckey blues.”

Steve played another song he recorded on his tribute album, Guy, “Texas 1947.” Afterwards, he said, “If you haven’t figured it, we made an album of Guy Clark songs.” It’s simply called Guy, just as Steve’s tribute to his other late mentor, Townes Van Zandt, was called Townes. Steve spoke about the Texas heritage he shared with Guy, how they both spent summers at Garner State Park, which is mentioned in “Texas 1947.” Steve told the audience, “The cowgirls would be sick of the local gentry, and it would be a target-rich environment for us city boys. You’d get your ass kicked, but it was worth it.”

Stream Guy by Steve Earle and The Dukes on Spotify:

Steve recounted the now almost mythical story of how he hitchhiked to Nashville at 19 and met Guy Clark. He’d hung around with Townes Van Zandt, and that gave him the credibility to get into Guy’s inner circle, where for years he “drove him nuts.” Guy was the only person who could get away with calling him “Stephen” — Steve warned no one in particular, “Don’t even fucking think about it.” Guy eventually helped Steve get his first publishing deal.

Continuing with songs from Guy, Steve and The Dukes played “Rita Ballou.” “Heartbroke,” Steve told the audience, was recorded by Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs “before he went eclectic.” Rodney was also mentored by Guy. As very young men, Rodney and Steve can be seen in Guy Clark’s house at Christmas in the documentary Heartworn Highways.

As Steve switched from electric to acoustic guitar, he told the audience that he played bass in Guy’s band. He explained that as Guy’s career took off, and then his career took off, they rarely saw each other on the road. They saw each other at Merlefest every year until Steve got banned. Steve saw Guy at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass each year until Guy got too sick to go any more. Steve mentioned that Guy had cancer for a long time, describing him as a “tough motherfucker.”

The last time Steve saw Guy, Guy was in a rehab facility. Steve sent BBQ over, and when he got there, Guy was sleeping. Steve was just about to leave when Guy’s eyes popped open, and he said, “Stephen.” Steve asked him how he’d liked the BBQ. Guy answered with a single word: “Pork.” A Texan to the end, despite 40 years in Nashville, he’d never come to accept pork as a legitimate BBQ meat.

Steve played one more Guy Clark song, “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” then talked about playing bass in Guy’s band for a while. Guy used to trade instruments with Steve, handing him the guitar, and make him play “Mercenary Song,” which he recorded many years later, on Train a-Comin’. Steve told the audience that Guy liked to make him play songs he wrote when he was 19 or 20. He said he wasn’t sure if it because it made Guy “feel young” or if Guy “thought I didn’t get any better.” It’s a hell of a song, especially for a young songwriter. Steve said that, at that age, one’s historical pieces are more credible than one’s love songs.

“Tom Ames’ Prayer” led into “Fort Worth Blues,” with a long solo intro section by Steve on the guitar. Written during a solo tour in Europe, it deals with Steve’s emotions over the passing of Townes Van Zandt. Steve commented that he’d “never applied so much poetic license and elbow grease” as he did on the line “Paris never was my kinda town.” “In point of fact,” he said, “Paris is exactly my kind of town.”

Steve and The Dukes played a string of his bigger hits: “I Feel Alright,” “Guitar Town,” and “Copperhead Road.” Elinor played the keyboards on “Guitar Town,” and his pedal steel player, Ricky Ray Jackson, played the keys on “Copperhead Road.” Steve mentioned that they’d just recently played “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me,” from his blues album Terraplane with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That led to “Goodbye.”

The Dukes left the stage and Steve talked about how, before he met Guy, he’d learned all his songs from Jerry Jeff Walker records. At the time, Guy hadn’t released his own record yet. When Steve met Guy, he stopped playing his songs. He’s reasonably certain that he was there the first time that Guy played “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” for anyone other than his wife, Suzanne. Steve played it, and The Dukes came back.

With The Dukes back on stage, Steve went into more Guy Clark material: “The Randall Knife,” which is largely spoken spoken word, and the classic “L.A. Freeway.” While Guy was born in West Texas, he grew up on the Gulf Coast, and Steve wanted to play a song in honor of that. Steve and The Dukes played the maritime-themed “Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint,” then one more Guy Clark song, “New Cut Road.”

Steve played his own material for the rest of his set. He added the next song, “Billie and Bonnie,” into his sets after receiving a lot of requests, but he wondered “about the people who really wanted to hear this song.” Next came the Celtic-themed “Galway Girl,” followed by a spirited rendition of “That All You Got.” “Firebreak Line” appeared on Steve’s most recent album of original material, So You Wanna Be An Outlaw. He also played the title cut from the album before finishing the set with “The Tennessee Kid.”

Steve and The Dukes received a standing ovation. For their encore, they started with Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets.” Springsteen is a major influence on Steve. On the seminal Guitar Town, ranked in Rolling Stone’s top 500 album, Steve performed a shotgun marriage of the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings and the heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen. “Tennessee 66” took the middle slot, and Guy Clark’s “Old Friends” ended the evening, just as it does the album Guy.

Here are some pictures of Steve Earle and The Dukes performing at The Birchmere on May 20, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.

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