Steve Earle and the Dukes, The Mastersons, The Barbican, London, 29th July 2018

Steve Earle has, as two of the Dukes, lead guitarist Chris Masterson and multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore. Husband and wife, they record and perform as a duo as The Mastersons and they are the opening act on this evening at The Barbican. Their music is predominantly made up of crystal clear vocals, Chris Masterson’s exemplary guitar and the achingly beautiful violin playing of Eleanor Whitmore. They also have a new album – ‘Transient Lullaby’ – out, a follow up to their debut ‘Birds Fly South‘, the title song of both make up parts of the set.

Their opener though is ‘You Could be Wrong‘, which is very much a song for Trumpian times, from the very first lines “Saying all the things you shouldn’t say / All the same old tired ways / You could be wrong“.  Eleanor Whitmore introduces ‘Don’t Tell Me to Smile‘ as a kind of revenge song – it having been inspired by an audience member who kept making little smile gestures whilst Eleanor was playing the violin – an instrument she confides that is not designed to accompany a beaming visage. From this humble inspiration comes a signature song, opened up to define the irrationality of trying to manipulate another into being what you might want them to be. Take me as I am, or go away. Upbeat, gorgeously played – it’s a great opening set because The Mastersons are one of the best duos you’ll get a chance to hear. And they’re part of Steve Earle’s band – these things of course don’t happen by chance.

After the interval Steve Earle took the stage, a grizzled road warrior of song, the band now a full six piece, ready to rock – with a country feel. Steve Earle and the Dukes really work at their two hours on stage – there’s little in the way of stage chat for much of the time and hardly time to applaud as songs segue neatly from one and straight into another. The gig is roughly broken down into mini-sets with the new album, the mandolin section, the big hits and more. It’s the new album – ‘So you wanna be an Outlaw?‘ which gets a good shakedown with the first six songs. With Steve Earle’s growling vocal, and the down and dirty playing of the band this is a brave move as these are still the less familiar songs – but the album title track opener sets the tone wonderfully, whilst ‘The Firebreak Line‘ rumbles and tumbles gloriously, and is dedicated to the elite firefighters – The Hotshots – who risk their lives to save the property of others.  For contrast the swinging poor boy tune ‘Walkin’ in LA‘ is a fiddle rich honky-tonker – and, as on the album, it’s paired with the transport upgrade of ‘Sunset Highway‘ which is a reverb heavy car tale – the kind of thing Tom Petty did so well, and although slower it does have a touch of ‘King’s Highway‘ feeling about it.

If there was a sense of something of a commercial necessity to heavily feature the new album then sliding easily into a batch of the early hits revolving around selections from ‘Guitar Town‘ and ‘Exit 0‘ is an easy crowdpleaser starting with ‘My old friend the blues‘ which slowed the hectic pace somewhat. ‘Someday‘ still resonates with hopelessness like an escapee from Creedence Clearwater Revival whilst ‘I ain’t ever satisfied‘ is a real stadium anthem for dissaffected youth. Incongruous with this audience? Maybe, but it’s a hell of a song and also sees the set progressing towards the point when Earle straps on the mandolin a clear sign that the big one is approaching, but not before the other almost as big ones. Barnstorming is the only adjective suitable for ‘Johnny Come Lately‘ and ‘Galway Girl‘ whilst ‘Acquainted with the wind‘ is a straight twelve bar blues hoboing ballad blessed with some of Earle’s most poetic lyrics “no shelter from the storm / no pillow for my head / ‘cept for maybe my arm / and I’m sleeping like the dead / no ceiling but the sky“. And how can ‘Copperhead Road‘ endure such frequent playing ? It does – a testimony to the song that it still packs a heck of a punch, and is naturally greeted with many a “whoop“.

The main set closer is an inspired pairing – ‘Fixin’ to Die‘ is a dark and grinding Death Row acknowledgement of the wages of sin – you kill someone, then you are surely going to Hell. The churning guitar conveys the combination of a life lived poorly with a bleak acceptance of an ultimate fate – “I’m fixin’ to die / reckon’ I’m going to hell / ‘cos I shot my baby“. It’s very much the inverse ‘Hey Joe‘ – which is why the raucous closer of ‘Hey Joe‘ is such a perfect choice.

And it’s another inspired pairing for the first encore – the American Civil War seen from both sides and boiled down into songs that have a real 19th century feel to them. The Irish-American experience of the truculent but jaunty ‘Dixieland‘ has those touches of celtic-folk and the swaggering lyrics of the winning side “I joined up with the 20th Maine / like I said my friend I’m a fightin’ man / marching South in the pouring rain / we’re all going down to Dixieland“. ‘Ben McCulloch‘ is a disillusioned lament for the fighting poor of the other side – sold lies at recruitment and offered many opportunities too be killed or maimed until desertion seems a better option since “I don’t even know what I’m fighting for / I ain’t never owned a slave“.  The final encore was preceded by Steve Earle on stage explaining over repeated guitar chords why he hadn’t put out a more obviously political album this time around, and how he plans a more political album before the next election. The challenge he has set himself though is to do more than preach to the choir – he wants to understand and persuade Trumpites, and for that knows he’ll also need a credible Democrat nominee. In between, after a rest, it’s an album of Guy Clark songs, along the lines of the ‘Townes‘ album, which Earle is working on with Joe Henry. The final song, with the band back behind him, plays strongly to Earle’s hopeful romantic side.

Set List – Steve Earle

So You Wannabe an Outlaw
Lookin’ For A Woman
The Firebreak Line
Walkin’ in LA
Sunset Highway
News From Colorado
My Old Friend The Blues
Guitar Town
I Ain’t Ever Satisfied
I’m Still In Love With You
You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had
Johnny Come Lately
The Galway Girl
Little Emperor
Acquainted With The Wind
Copperhead Road
Hard Core Troubadour
The Week Of Living Dangerously
If Mama Coulda Seen Me
Fixin’ to Die
Hey Joe


Ben McCulloch

Encore 2

Steve Earle strums and talks future plans and politics
The Girl on the Mountain

Set List – The Mastersons

You could be wrong
Transient Lullaby
Birds Fly South
Don’t tell me to smile
Cautionary Tale

About Jonathan Aird 2654 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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Carolyn Middleton

Please learn how to use apostrophes properly – two glaring errors in the second paragraph. Also, please do your research – Guy Clark’s surname does not have an ‘e’ at the end.