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Steve Earle and The Dukes + The Mastersons @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham 20 May 2013

Oh to the cozy and refined Symphony Hall, and for me, something completely different -this time for the godfather of alternative country music – Steve Earle and The Dukes with support from The Mastersons.

The Mastersons are Chris Masterson and “…. his far better half…” wife Eleanor Whitmore, both from Texas, USA, ‘singing and playing together.’  After playing in numerous bands separately, they came together as a unit, recording their debut album ‘Birds Fly South.’ Good enough to make Steve Earle swoon and bring them with him on tour – so much so that he not only introduces their set, they are part of his band.  The Masterson’s are not just a duo – they sing all lyrics together, perfectly harmonised. And they’re a musically talented pair – Whitmore plays guitar, violin, mandolin and most anything else with strings and her husband is equally gifted.  Think Fleetwood Mac does country with a bit of rock n’ roll. They go down well, polite applause from the half filled Symphony Hall. After the show they’ll be “…hanging out with Steve….” in the merchandising area. They are an interesting sound, check out their website: www.themastersonsmusic.com

Steve Earle is indeed, quite a character and a talented one at that. A singer-songwriter, record producer, an author and actor (most notably in ‘The Wire’). Starting off life in the classic country music location of Nashville, Tennessee, he released his first EP in ’82 with he breakthrough album ‘Guitar Town’ in ’86. Grammy award winning, and probably best well known to those outside this genre for ‘Copperhead Road’ (’86) his songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, The Pretenders, Joan Baez and countless others. He’s had quite a life; he’s is a recovering addict (from decades past), been married seven times (twice to the same woman), supports countless causes and his songs draw on the personal, as well as politics and social matters. The new album is here – ‘The Low Highway’ by Steve Earle with the Dukes (and the Duchesses) and according to The Guardian his songs remain ‘as fresh as they are powerful’. And if you fancy a read – check out his novel ‘Never Get Out of this World Alive’ from 2011 with accompanying album of the same name.

Tonight this date is part of a comprehensive European tour before he returns to more gigs in the good old US of A. As he commented in the intro to The Mastersons, he’s been coming over here for the past 26 years “…best to start an English tour in England, London is okay… but this is better….” Birmingham is indeed the first date of this leg of his tour, a comment he makes several times to explain the ‘rustiness’ as the band tune and change instruments between songs.

He arrives on stage at 8.30. The set is simple, using Symphony Hall’s lighting with no touring rig, a black sheet as backdrop and a stage filled with amps and musical instruments. He’s here tonight with Will and Kelly, long standing members of The Dukes and both of The Mastersons providing additional band contributions, musically and vocally (hence The Duchesses).

Set starts off with ‘The Low Highway’ – acoustic morphs as the band joins in. It’s a rolling classic country track with additional Irish folk blues, which receives a big cheer from the crowd. ‘21st Century Blues’ shows that he’s still got the passion and the ire; ‘Calico Country’ is reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s ‘Crank It Up.’

‘Taneytown’ is a folk tale to music; ‘I Thought you Should Know’ a mesmerizing country ballad. Earle: “See I couldn’t leave that one out…. so for ‘The Low Highway’ [new album] I realised I had best band out and therefore it needed to be recorded. It’s tough times for people…” He discusses New Orleans, a location where he spent time filming and recording the Grammy Nominated soundtrack for ‘Treme’, a US TV series about residents of the city who are rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Katrina (now into its fifth season). New Orleans is still rebuilding and it’s stalled due to lack of funds…  “You can’t take over the world and raise taxes – it just doesn’t work….” As he goes into an Old Orleans blues inspired track ‘That All You Got?’ “For the second season [I haven’t seen the series – I take it he was only in the first!] My guitar case and mandolin were in the show far longer than I was…. as was an unfinished piece of music…” We get the completed rendition – ‘Love’s Gonna Blow My Way.’

Earle and The Dukes make the set seem effortless, they’re jamming and enjoying playing together – Earle is chatty and engaging and has a wry sense of humour – making the crowd chortle. As he moves to the keyboards at the side of the set “This is an odd move for me I know. I used to drink. I drank a lot and badly, and I really badly would believe, with all my heart I could speak Spanish. Spanish to Mexicans… well it would end in tears. So…. this is piano… and I think I can play it [he badly believes he can]…. it was too heavy to carry around when I left home…”  This is the 13th time he’s ever played piano in front of people and he manages it more than capably; “Pocket Full of Rain has a Dylanesque quality and is quite beautiful.

Then we get another ballad, a tall tale within the song; ‘Ben McCulloch’ featuring Earle on the mandolin, culminating in a big cheer from the audience. Next up – the one he’s most known for in this country and a crackin’ rendition ‘Copperhead Road’. Earle: “So I’ve fucked the setlist up – but I think we’re back in track.…” as they have clearly gone out of track order – not that you would have known that.

After the set, he confirms, “we’ll all out of the merch stuff after – ‘cos diesel is expensive…” and a joke: “Why are there no banjo’s on Star Trek? Cos it’s the future!” He tells us of a free and non-commercial festival in San Francisco (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival - a long list of names gonna be there if you fancy it) and a guy called Warren (who’s now passed away) who not only founded the festival in 2001, he gave his money to the San Francisco Pension Scheme (after it very nearly collapsed after the financial meltdown on Wall Street) so that every cop, fireman and nurse can get their pension. A song dedicated to him: ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo.

Earle is full of anecdotes – another about a local Catholic church, built in 1830. He was walking by with Tim Robbins and he mentioned that now they had a soup kitchen for the poor. Robbins responded that there had always been soup kitchen in the basement of the church. It was now more visible because the queues were longer. Earle: “We choose what we gonna see…” and he’s into track ‘Invisible.’

Steve Earle maybe, in this country, doesn’t command the same legendary status as say someone like Neil Young – but he is well worth checking out. He is indeed the alternative country gentleman. Earle tells tales with his music and tells tales between his songs. For something that maybe outside your particular genre (as it was mine), take a sneak peak and check him out (he’ll be one of the many performers at the Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco in October if you fancy a trip to the States). If not, him and his Dukes (and Duchesses) will, no doubt, will return next year for his eclectic and entertaining alternative country music….

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Reviewed for Birmingham Live!