Steve Earle performing at The Auditorium in Liverpool Echo Arena (pic Dave Munn)

Steve Earle at The Auditorium in Liverpool Echo Arena (photo by Dave Munn, Liverpool Echo)

For once, said Steve Earle during his performance on Wednesday night at Liverpool’s newest venue, The Auditorium, he had been able to spend two days ‘walking around town, taking the Beatles tour’.  ‘This town is so gorgeous’, he continued. ‘There’s so many beautiful places to play and it’s a great place to live now. You should be really proud of it.’  Not surprisingly he received a warm round of applause for that observation.

The Auditorium is described as ‘an intimate performance space’ so I expected something smaller than the 1000-seater into which we were ushered for Steve Earle’s solo acoustic show.  But it’s a great new venue, with comfortable seats, clear sightlines and excellent acoustics.  Earle came on stage to a rapturous reception from an audience which was clearly familiar with every twist and turn of his long and chequered career. The singer went on to give a heartfelt and deeply personal performance of more than two hours.

Before Steve Earle, there was a truly terrible support act: Redsky July presented what can only be described as saccharine Home Counties country. With the exception of ‘Renegade’, a song inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that featured  haunting violin, the rest was embarrassingly mawkish, plumbing the depths with a cover of Donna Fargo’s ‘The Happiest Girl In The Whole U.S.A’:

Shine on me sunshine
Walk with me world, it’s a skippidy doo da day
I’m the happiest girl in the whole U.S.A.

I found it hard to believe that Steve Earle had had any involvement in choosing this lot for his support.  It was a relief, therefore, when Steve took to the stage, powering straight into ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ as a tribute to Liverpool’s most famous sons.  Many artists throw a token Beatles number into their set when they perform here, but for Steve it’s serious business.  As he said later, he’s been playing that particular song since he was a teenager. Two decades ago, on Train A-Comin’ he did a great version of ‘I’m Looking Through You’, while in a piece he wrote for Tracks magazine in 2004 he explained how his respect for the Beatles goes right back to his childhood:

I was nine years old and living with my family in Schertz, Texas, in February of 1964, when the Beatles landed in New York and everything changed. I knew about the Beatles the way I knew about anything that had to do with music—through my uncle, my mother’s half-brother, who was five years older than me. All the records I had –including the first Beatles album—and my first pair of Beatle boots and my first guitar were hand-me-downs from him. […] Back in 1964, I was caught up in it the way every kid was. But when I look at it now, I’m reminded that, God damn, they were good. They were making do-it yourself music at an incredibly high artistic level.

With that out of the way, Steve began a two hour odyssey through a back catalogue that constitutes, in the words of the Liverpool Echo review, ‘subversive country, confessional folk and outlaw blues’.  From early albums like Guitar Town he served up outlaw songs and anthems that dream of escape from small-town America: ‘My Old Friend the Blues’, ‘Someday’, ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ and, of course, ‘Copperhead Road’.  Alongside those were ones he introduced as the ‘chick songs’ – delicate and tender songs that stopped the women in the audience from walking out, such as ‘Every Part of Me’ (‘The result of being lonely in Kings Lynn’), ‘Sparkle and Shine’, and ‘Valentine’s Day’.

In a very personal presentation, Steve opened up in a way few performers would be willing to risk, linking songs to difficult moments in his life when he was regarded as a ‘lost cause’ (usually, as he admitted, as a result of his own actions).  He spoke of the years between 1990 and 1994 lost to heroin and crack cocaine addiction, and of his time in jail; how, on parole with no driver’s licence, and unable to get into town, he came to write  ‘Valentine’s Day’:

I ain’t got a card to sign
Roses have been hard to find
I only hope that you’ll be mine
On Valentine’s Day

He told of an obsession for collecting guns in his younger days, and how he stopped when he realised he was placing his son Justin in harm’s way.  Songs like ‘Feel Alright’, ‘Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain’ (written twenty years ago this September 13: welcome my nightmare’) and ‘Devil’s Right Hand’ spoke of such episodes. At this stage in the show, Steve played a succession of blues, his guitar work much better on these numbers than on earlier songs, where he tended to rely on repetitive strumming.  ‘South Nashville Blues’ speaks volumes of about those lost years:

I went downtown, it was just to ease my pain
I ended up out walkin’ in the rain
I took my pistol and a hundred dollar bill
I had everything I needed to get me killed …

I start way up top and I walk down to the end
I go way down in the bottoms
And I come back up again
Now Mama told me, Papa too
They both talked til they turned blue
But I got them ol’ South Nashville blues again
I won’t be satisfied until they lock me up again

But, Steve Earle is a survivor: clean now, he spoke of how he had not touched alcohol for twenty years.  It would seem, though, that some things never change: married eight times, he spoke of how this summer’s solo tour around Europe was a process of coming to terms with himself after another divorce. He’d been doing smaller shows like this one, in smaller venues where he can look out and see the audience ‘and it’s like into looking in the mirror – all of us getting older hairier’.

Good friends were recalled. Introducing the achingly beautiful ‘Goodbye’, recorded on Train A-Comin‘ in 1995 as a duet with Emmylou Harris, Steve announced that just the other day Emmylou had lost her mother.  Then there was a segment of the set in which he spoke of his long friendship with Townes Van Zandt.

Steve Earle, left, with Townes Van Zandt in the 1990s

Steve Earle, left, with Townes Van Zandt in the 1990s

He’s a great storyteller is Earle (he’s written two books to date, the most recent being I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, described as ‘a sort of poetic ghost story’, the ghost being that of Hank Williams), and throughout the evening he regales us with stories about Townes, ‘a migratory bird’ who would spend his summers in Colorado, his winters in Tennessee.  How those who lived along the route he followed would eagerly anticipate his arrival.

Steve first met Townes in the early 1970s, when Van Zandt was the leading light of a brilliant Texas music scene. Earle was a teenager at the time, and Van Zandt was roughly a decade older, to all but a handful of his closest friends a remote, elusive figure, apt to disappear or turn up at unpredictable moments.  He became Earle’s mentor, though hardly a steady, guiding hand, as Steve pointed out: advising him to always put the top back on the bottle so that the drink wouldn’t spill when it inevitably got kicked over and to always use clean needles.

Stories told, Steve sang ‘Fort Worth Blues’, his tribute to Townes:

You used to say the highway was your home
But we both know and that ain’t true
It’s just the only place a man can go
When he don’t know where he’s travelling’ to

But Colorado’s always clean and healing’
And Tennessee in spring is green and cool
It never really was your kind of town
But you went around with the Forth Worth blues

And somewhere up beyond the great divide
Ohh where the sky is wide and the clouds are few
A man can see his way clear to the light
And just hold on tight, that’s all you gotta do

Steve reminded us that he once made a record that consisted entirely of Townes Van Zandt songs. Then, preversely, he chooses to sing one not on the album – ‘Rex’s Blues’, with its typically mournful Van Zandt lyric:

Ride the blue wind high and free
She’ll lead you down through misery
Leave you low, come time to go
Alone and low as low can be

There was a new song – ‘Girl on the Mountain’ – which Steve informed us will be on a new album, due to be recorded in October and scheduled for release in early 2015.  Later, there’s a story that precedes ‘Outlaws Honeymoon’, a song he wrote for the film Niagara, Niagara, but which was never used because he insisted on retaining publication rights.  He recorded it later for The Mountain, the beautiful, intense and blazingly-energetic album he made with the Del McCoury Band.  ‘I Believe in God’ followed (‘the sort of song you write at 55’), before Earle lovingly removed a dulcimer from its case on a table behind him. Divorced again, he spoke of how if he could keep only one thing, it would be this dulcimer.  He sang two songs with the dulcimer – ‘Dixie Land’ and ‘Galway Girl’ (before which he talked of his love for Ireland – his next port of call – and the troubles the country has been through since the crash.

Brought back by a tumultuous standing ovation for an encore, Steve launched into a lengthy spiel about Israel, why he’s opposed to artistic boycotts, and his collaboration with David Broza, an Israeli singer-songwriter and activist.  Steve produced Broza’s latest album East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, featuring songs and musicians that cross cultures and languages.  Its theme is coexistence – in common with Earle’s first encore, ‘Jerusalem’, which sounded more than ever like a lost cause on a day when conflict flared again in Gaza, and an American journalist was beheaded by ISIS:

I woke up this morning and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

But Earle doesn’t believe in lost causes, ‘because I’m a recovering heroin addict, and for a long time everyone thought I was a lost cause, and I even thought so myself, but I turned my life around’.  Well, sure, though I think the Middle East is a different kettle of fish entirely.  After that, we were back on home ground for the final encore, ‘Guitar Town’.

Set list

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
Girl on the Mountain (new song)
My Old Friend the Blues
Someday
I Ain’t Every Satisfied
Goodbye
Every Part of Me
Sparkle and Shine
Valentine’s Day
I Feel Alright
Taneytown
South Nashville Blues
Cocaine Can’t Kill my Pain
Outlaws Honeymoon
I Believe in God
Rex’s Blues
Fort Worth Blues
Dixie Land
Galway Girl
Devils Right Hand
Copperhead Road
Encore
Jerusalem
Guitar Town

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2 thoughts on “Steve Earle: outlaw blues and ‘chick songs’

  1. I’ve been working my way through Earle’s more recent back catalogue, (I stopped following Steve around about the time of ‘El Corazon’), and more than a few bootlegs, for the past few months so I was really gutted I heard about this gig too late to make the trip up north. The acoustic version of ‘Rex’s Blues/Fort Worth Blues’ is a permanent staple of my I-pod, along with the moving spoke preface in regards to Townes.
    One slight criticism of Steve though is his insistence on calling, I guess what one may label the softer, or more sensitive, side of his song writing as ‘chick songs’; almost as if Steve needs to justify showing vulnerability when it’s clear from his song writing that he doesn’t view the world in such simplistic terms; perhaps this just shows you can take the boy out of Texas.. In any case, a great songwriter, and it sounds like it was a great gig.

    1. Thanks, Anthony. You’re absolutely right – I hesitated before adding ‘chick songs’ to the title of this post. I should have made clear that I found the term distasteful, even if Steve’s explanation of the dichotomy was perceptive and quite funny.

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