Steve Earle has long been the go-to example of an artist who manages to stay true to himself and his audience while evolving as a musician. For evidence of this, one needs to look no further than 2015’s Terraplane, a blues album that maintains Earle trademark growl and depth of songwriting—then whiplash right back to this year’s So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, Earle’s most country album in decades and one clearly inspired with Willie, Waylon and the boys. Steve Earle is nothing if he is not authentic.
While it would be easy to claim that Earle retreating back to outlaw country is de-evolving, that’s simply not the case. The new songs, of which he played six in a row at the beginning of his set on Saturday night at The State Room, are songs that Earle couldn’t have written even two years ago. Because, like his music, inexplicably, even Steve Earle the person has evolved.
Compared to the many other times I’ve seen Earle in concert, last night he was downright jovial. He came out the personally introduce his long-time openers (and members of the The Dukes) The Mastersons. And, unlike last time he played The State Room, his only mention of his latest ex-wife Allison Moorer was positive—he even pimped her new album from the stage (note to my ex-husband: Feel free to promote my work as you see fit, RG).
Long known as a liberal firebrand, Earle was even relatively soft in his approach to politics while onstage.
While introducing “Firebreak Line,” a song about hotshot firefighters, he couldn’t resist adding that the men and women who put their lives on the line were sometimes “protecting a house that some rich asshole built where he wasn’t supposed to.” And during a set-closing cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” he made sure to mention he was going down to Mexico “Before that asshole builds a goddamn wall.”
And speaking of the wall, the highlight of the show may have been Earle leading a call-and-response with the crowd for his song “City of Immigrants,” after a speech given that ended with, “There is no word more American than Immigrant.” And then the entire room sang the lyrics, “All of us are immigrants, every daughter, every son, Everyone is everyone, all of us are Immigrants.”
Earle went from one song to another, and one instrument to another (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, harmonica and even a bouzouki) playing old favorites like “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” “Jerusalem” and “Hardcore Troubadour,” but I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t a single love song in the entire set—though there was a break-up songs (I admit, “You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had” is kiiiiiiinda a love song. Kinda.).
And then, during the encore, Steve Earle, known for writing a song for (and sometimes marrying) every girl he’s ever been romantically entangled with, told the crowd that he’s pretty good at his job, “But I have fucked almost everything else up—but not for lack of trying.” The elephant in the room—his seven marriages. But he told the crowd, though he still describes himself as romantic, he’s coming to terms with being alone and with the idea that maybe there isn’t a person for everyone.
“Besides,” he said, “I like sitting where I want to at the movie theater. I can watch all the baseball I want. And you can get one ticket to anything.”
Baseball and movies (and love songs)? Hey Steve, call me.