Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) At The Music Hall Of Williamsburg
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By Nate Hertweck
GRAMMY winner Steve Earle is one of America's greatest living storytellers, but he's not stopping there. Earle's 15th studio album, 2013's The Low Highway, is a road record written about what he experienced from the window of his tour bus while traveling across the United States. His latest tour stop landed him in the heart of one of the United States' emerging music neighborhoods, Brooklyn's Williamsburg, for a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 8.
Earle came prepared. Backed by a new and improved lineup of the Dukes (& Duchesses) featuring über-talented guitar utility man Chris Masterson and his wife Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and vocals, the band's fresh take on Earle's road-worn songs nicely matched the hip Williamsburg landscape. Masterson wielded guitar tones ranging from bombastic to haunting as Whitmore's pure voice shined through. Sonically, the show was intriguing from start to finish.
Earle himself slung a myriad of different guitars, banjos and mandolins over his shoulder as he rambled through nearly 30 songs on a rainy Brooklyn night. Though he is considered the ultimate urban cowboy (the San Antonio native found success early in his career in Nashville but now lives in New York), Earle is also the first to poke fun at the intrinsic twang in his music.
"Why aren't there banjos in 'Star Trek'?" Earle teased the audience. "Because it's the future."
Musician jokes aside, the gravel in Earle's voice rumbled the room as he delivered perfectly weathered and authentic performances of his signature story songs, including the GRAMMY-nominated "Guitar Town," "The Galway Girl" and "Hard-Core Troubadour." The night also revolved around the blunt sincerity of new songs such as the abrasive "Calico County," the playful "Pocket Full Of Rain" and the empathetic "Invisible." The at-capacity crowd let out a collective cheer during "This City," a song Earle wrote for New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that came across just as relevant to a city recently devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Though Earle's songs cover the extremes of darkness from war to heartbreak and poverty, there is always a light that shines through in his voice.
During his first encore, Earle even called himself an "optimist" for having another child at age 55 before dedicating "Remember Me" to his 3-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with autism. The room erupted again in cheers of support. For his second encore, he set down the mandolin and banjo in favor of his custom Fender Telecaster, snarling into the fitting "New York City" followed by a gritty rendition of the '60s classic "Wild Thing." The show closed with his modern political anthem "The Revolution Starts Now," proving again that Earle's sights are pointed squarely at what's next.
Riding the L train from Brooklyn back to Manhattan with the dirty chime of a mandolin through a fuzzbox from "Copperhead Road" still ringing in my ears felt something like Earle must have felt looking out the window of his tour bus — a testament to just how raw, truthful, familiar, and universal his songs remain.
To catch Steve Earle in a city near you, click here for tour dates.
"21st Century Blues"
"I Thought You Should Know"
"That All You Got?"
"Love's Gonna Blow My Way"
"After Mardi Gras"
"Pocket Full Of Rain"
"You're Still Standing There"
"Burnin' It Down"
"Warren Hellman's Banjo"
"The Galway Girl"
"Train A Comin'"
"Down The Road Pt. II"
"Down The Road"
"City Of Immigrants"
"New York City"
"Wild Thing" (Chip Taylor cover)
"The Revolution Starts Now"
(Nate Hertweck lives in Los Angeles where he serves as Content Manager for The Recording Academy. Hertweck also plays guitar in a rowdy rock band, produces artist tribute projects and collects musical gems in all formats. Connect with Nate on Tumblr.)