It was with great anticipation that I finally got to see Steve Earle and The Dukes live for the first time when they came to the O2 Academy in Bristol. As anyone who has seen the great man will agree, with 33 albums, 3 Grammies and a roller coaster 44 year career behind him this guy is Americana Royalty.
Arriving on stage he absolutely filled the room with his presence before playing a chord or singing a note. Casting a menacing appearance he opened up with ‘So You Wanna be an Outlaw’, the title track from last year’s album featuring some lovely guitar work from long-term guitarist Chris Masterson before dedicating ‘The Firebreak Line’ to the fire-fighters who, “Year after year risk their lives putting out wild fires back home”. Following this came ‘Walking in LA’ and ‘Sunset Highway’, the latter featuring some beautiful pedal steel from Ricky Ray Jackson and some lovely and tasteful fiddle work from Eleanor Whitmore whose presence in the line up, Earle joked, “Dilutes the ugliness and raises the IQ of the band.” Whilst introducing ‘News from Colorado’ Earle swigged some water from a metal bottle proudly announcing there are “No plastic bottles on this tour.” Yep, there is absolutely no sign of this 63 year-old’s environmental campaigning slowing down!
Earle then brought out his acoustic for an intimate performance of ‘My old Friend the Blues’, taken from his 1986 breakthrough ‘Guitar Town‘ album and you could hear a pin drop. Whitmore switched to keys for ‘Someday’ before the distinctive opening chords of ‘Guitar Town’ itself led to a communal sing-along that continued with ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’. We were then treated to ‘I’m Still in Love with You’, taken from Earle’s 1999 collaboration with The Del McCoury Band, ‘The Mountain’, with Iris DeMent’s harmonies replaced tonight with Whitmore’s crystal clear vocals – spellbinding!! This was followed by the bluesy, ‘You’re the Best Lover that I ever Had’.
He told the audience that he doesn’t believe in walls, tribalism and what he called “Nashvillism” and then shared some personal memories of playing and visiting Belfast in the 80’s before launching into ‘Johnny Come Lately’, which he recorded with The Pogues all those years ago, and then ‘Galway Girl’, the iconic ‘Copperhead Road’ and a kick ass version of ‘Travelling Man’.
Strapping his electric guitar back on Earle and The Dukes then tore through the rockier side of his vast back catalogue with ‘Down the Road’, ‘If Mama Could See Me’ and ‘Fixing to Die’ standing out. The set ended with a fantastic version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ which sounded as great as you would expect it to. The inevitable encores followed but not before Earle shared his future plans including an album of Guy Clark covers which will be followed by a ‘more political record’ in 2019/20. All in all an incredible show from an incredible artist who continues to inspire.