My father died nine years ago last month. In his eulogy I wrote how even though he was gone I could still find him - in nature, in the bluegrass music he loved, in his stories, which I repeat to this day, and in the sad brown eyes of our hound dog Chelsea. Watching Steve Earle perform at Neighborhood Theatre May 2, I was reminded that the place I feel closest to my father is watching Earle perform.
I remember when Dad brought the “Copperhead Road” record home. The skull and crossbones on the cover. Earle in his motorcycle leathers and long hair on the back cover. This was not my daddy’s bluegrass. But it was the rare artist we could agree on. When Earle made a comeback a few years later with the acoustic leaning “Train A Comin’,” he became even more of a connection for my father and I. I’d snatch up each album - “I Feel Alright,” “El Corazon” - at the record store where I worked and take them home to Daddy in his dilapidated house in the woods in West Virginia in the same way he’d bring home cassettes and “Rolling Stone” magazines to me when he worked out of state when I was 11 or 12.
All of these memories come flooding back to me when I watch Earle, who with his graying beard and long hair resembles my father more now than he ever did. Earle is probably my favorite songwriter and I’ve seen him live countless times. After a few years of seeing him in more unusual configurations - last time at McGlohon Theatre he was backed by a DJ - the Neighborhood Theatre show reunited him with the Dukes including his longtime bassist Kelley Looney who actually got to sing lead(!). Earle was also backed by dB’s drummer Will Rigby and new guitarist Chris Masterson and his band mate in the Mastersons Eleanor Whitmore. Sadly Earle’s singer-songwriter wife Allison Moorer, a knockout singer in her own right, was absent. She is spending summer at home having decided that their two-year-old son John Henry spends enough of his life on the road.
Earle hit on the usual suspects early in his set apparently to appease those obnoxious, inebriated fans that insist on yelling “Copperhead Road” for the entire show. There actually was one such fan posted at stage front, but Earle just shrugged and laughed at the guy. Earle’s demeanor was definitely mellower. He wasn’t ruffled by the resident asshole. In fact he and his band stuck around and autographed merch after the show admittedly in an attempt to sell more of it.
He hit on the Celtic “Molly O,” dedicated "Every Part of Me" to Moorer, and “Telephone Road.” If you’re a fan of a songwriter you probably love hearing the stories behind the songs and Earle recited a great, longwinded tale about jumping through hoops to see ZZ Top, among other big names (including Fleetwood Mac when it was still a blues band) in the early `70s in Texas. He and his friends stayed on “Telephone Road.”
Earle’s concert whizzed by with “My Old Friend the Blues,” “Someday,” “Guitar Town,” and “Copperhead Road.”
“Anyone on parole can leave now,” he stated after the run of hits.
He introduced “Galway Girl” by noting his Steve Gilchrist custom mandolin, adding “I quit pimpin’ Gibson’s stuff because I don’t like the way they do business.” Burn! He followed it with “Harlan Man” and “The Mountain,” two songs that resonate with this West Virginia native and union organizer’s great granddaughter. By the time he’d run through “City of Immigrants,” “Taneytown,” “Hardcore Troubadour,” and “The Revolution Starts Now” his blue button-up was completely soaked.
The poignant introductions continued during the encore. He talked about the drama teacher that changed his life and how he continues to look for answers in books. That lead to "Jerusalem," a song he said he’ll keep singing until seemingly unattainable peace is a reality. (Click on the song title to watch the moving intro and performance on YouTube). His optimism gave me chills. He followed that with “Never Get Outta This World Alive.”
He introduced “Devil’s Right Hand” with another story about how the tune became a gun control anthem years after it was written. His then teenage son Justin (who music fans now know as Justin Townes Earle) stole a loaded gun from under Steve’s mattress shortly after the elder Earle was released from jail. For someone with children his story only reinforced my own opinion - as he is apt to do - about having guns at home.
“I haven’t had a gun in my house since,” he said.
A second encore included his cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper.” He ended with the rocking anthem “NYC,” an indication of where his heart really is - back at home in the city with his beautiful wife and son. And I left anxious to see my own little boys - the other place I feel closest to my father.