Wednesday, June 25, 2014

CD Odyssey Disc 633: Steve Earle

As is my tradition on A Creative Maelstrom, when I go and see a concert I will usually review the new release of the album the tour is supporting. I’ve seen this next artist on his last four tours but that particular rule didn’t exist for the first three so this is the first time I’m getting a chance to invoke it for him.

Disc 633 is…. The Low Highway

Artist: Steve Earle

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? Not content with one of Tony Fitzpatrick’s paintings, Earle has opted to go with four of them.  Since Fitzpatrick’s paintings aren’t my bag, featuring four of them instead of one is not what I’d call progress. They were also featured on the tour shirt, so I had to forgo that as well.

How I Came To Know It:  I’ve known Steve Earle since his very first record back in 1986. This was just me buying his latest offering, as I always do.

How It Stacks Up:  This album was new and I had to do some reconsidering of previous albums to figure out just where it fits. I could go on about how I like all of Steve Earle’s albums for different reasons, but what the hell – let’s just make the call. Of the last three Steve Earle records, I’d say “The Low Highway” is the best of the bunch. I’ll put it 10th best out of his 15 studio albums (excluding “Townes”, which is all cover songs). This bumps 1990’s “The Hard Way” down to 11.

Rating:  3 stars

From the opening notes of “The Low Highway” you know it is going to take a slow meandering path into your heart, just like Steve Earle criss-crosses North America bringing audiences whatever his genius has dreamed up recently.

The album opens with the title track, another excellent road song from a man who long ago perfected the art form. The tune has the nice easy pace of a tour bus, and you might expect it to be about nothing more than scenery passing by. Instead, Earle infuses the experience with a social commentary about what he sees across America:

Travelin’ out on the low highway
Three thousand miles to the Frisco bay
‘Cross the rivers wild and the lonesome plains
Up the coast and down and back again
Saw empty houses on dead end streets
People linin’ up for something to eat
And the ghost of America watchin’ me
Through the broken windows of the factories
Naked bones of a better day
As I rolled on down the low highway.”

For Earle the passing scenery of America, with all its grandeur and scale, is nothing without the people in it. Almost forty years into his career, he has delivered another masterpiece to help us see the underbelly of the American dream.

This theme asserts itself throughout the album, notably on “Invisible” another low-key rumble tackling the issue of homelessness.

My personal favourite on the album is “Burnin’ It Down” a song told from the perspective of an arsonist musing about burning down a Wal-Mart before it wrecks his small town. I’ve only been to Wal-Mart once, and I watched in mild horror as people wandered trance-like up and down the aisles loading plastic carts with cheaply made junk they didn’t need. That said, if you want to defeat Wal-Mart it is as easy as making the decision to shop local instead – no burning necessary.

The album sticks with this loose theme of what Earle calls the “Low Highway” off the top. Here you’ll find the forgotten and marginalized folks just scratching out a living as best they can. The album lacks a little in painting specific characters to write these larger tales, but it makes up for it with sparse, small arrangements that keep the record intimate to their struggle.

Earle’s love of New Orleans (partly rekindles through his involvement on the TV show “Treme”) is evident again on this album. “After Mardi Gras” directly reference the city, and “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” and “Pocket Full of Rain” have a heavy New Orleans feel to them. “Pocket Full of Rain” is also Earle’s first serious foray into playing piano.  Like his efforts on the banjo, it isn’t nearly at the level of his guitar playing, but he plays with heart, and you have to admire his willingness to put himself out there and learn new instruments, and how they impact songs.

As I noted earlier, social commentary is a big part of “The Low Highway” and while it can seem grim, the record shows Earle’s growing optimism with the world. My favourite song for this is “21st Century Blues” a rock/country cross over that starts out listing all the things that we didn’t get (colonies in space, flying cars, transporters) and then gets into the broken dreams of what we thought the decade would bring, but for Earle has fallen short.

However, by the end Earle turns the disappointment on its head, basically noting that this century is just like any other, capable of being whatever we make it:

“We stand now on the verge of history
The world can be anything we want it to be
Where there’s a will there’s a way where there’s a fire there’s a spark
Out in the streets downtown in the park
Maybe the future’s just waitin’ on you and me
In the 21st century.”

Fittingly, the record ends with “Remember Me” about Earle’s newest child, and his leaving some advice behind in the hopes it will help when he’s gone. The song serves as a bookend to “Little Rock and Roller” a song about his first child off 1986’s “Guitar Town” a song about a father on the road and missing his son. “Remember Me” holds the more poignant viewpoint of an aging father who will miss a large part of his young child’s life. Yet for all that “Remember Me” is a reminder that for all his dark and dystopian views of the present, Earle is at his core an optimist – ready to leave the world to a new generation in the hopes they’ll make it better.

Best tracks:   The Low Highway, Burnin’ It Down, Invisible, 21st Century Blues, Remember Me

The Concert – June 24, 2014 at the McPherson Theatre, Victoria

I’ve seen Steve Earle’s last four trips to Victoria, and I’ve never been disappointed. Despite a rocky start, he delivered a quality show once again last night.

Earle always brings it hard, and he always earns his pay, whether he is cranking it up with the help of a DJ (the “Washington Square Serenade” show in 2008), is a one-man guitar act (the “Townes” tour in 2009) or a full helping of Dukes and Duchesses backing him (2011’s “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive”).

This tour was about mid-way between, with two old hands (bassist and original Duke Kelley Looney and long-time drummer Will Rigby) and a couple of new additions (fiddler Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson). Notably absent was Earle’s wife Allison Moorer, as they’ve recently split.

This show was at the McPherson Theatre. Like the Royal Theatre, the McPherson is an old playhouse, although it lacks the former’s charm and inspiring architecture. It does share the Royal’s legacy of having been built for non-amplified sound, and as a result it needs a delicate touch on the soundboard.

Unfortunately, the opening salvo of the show did not benefit from such a soft touch. The opening track, “Low Highway” is a mostly acoustic number, and it came off alright, but when Earle plugged in for rockin’ numbers like “Hard Core Troubadour,” “Calico County” and “21st Century Blues” it was a garble of distorted sound. This particularly bugged me on “21st Century Blues” because I love that song so much.

Fortunately after a bit of stink eye from the musicians on stage and a bit of yelling from a woman seated to my left, the sound engineer got the message, and things quickly improved. The McPherson will never be as graceful on the ears as the Royal, but they managed to wrestle things into pretty good shape within 20 minutes.

The show had a bit of a harder edge than previous Earle concerts, and Moorer’s absence was notable. I felt bad for Earle, who was clearly heartbroken singing tearjerkers like “I Thought You Should Know” and “My Old Friend the Blues” but willing to put it out there and let us feel it with him.

One of the great things about going to a Steve Earle show is the ever-changing set-list, and this was no exception. The majority of the new album made it on (although not my favourite song – “Burnin’ It Down” – c’mon, Steve!) and I liked hearing these tracks.

Earle did little mini-sets of songs based on common themes. There was a Civil War stretch (“Ben McCulluch” and “Dixieland”) a New Orleans section, and my favourite – an “I’ve gotta get outta this town!” list with “Someday,” “Down the Road” and “Guitar Town.” Earle also played “Copperhead Road” but he seemed disinterested in it, and it might be time to retire this chestnut for a few years while he reinvigorates his interest.

The first of Earle’s two encores had a fun collection of covers, including Ian Tyson’s “Summer Wages” and a Levon Helm song I couldn’t name. Notably missing was the sing-a-long favourite “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” but Earle has done that enough times now that I was OK with it getting a rest for a while (see “Copperhead Road” comment above). The second encore delivered a kick-ass version of the Trogg’s “Wild Thing” instead, and was just as fun.

Driven in part by Masterson’s amazing guitar work, the show had a stronger rock edge than Earle has had in concert in recent years, and when things did lighten up we were treated to Whitmore’s amazing fiddle – which to my ear had a distinctive East Coast flavour.

Whitmore and Masterson also form a folk duo called “The Mastersons” which was the opening act. They were very good and I’ll be getting one or both of their discs soon (trying to cool it after some large CD purchases of late).

In addition to performing well, the Mastersons were delightfully frank about how they would bad mouth any town that didn’t give them some love at the Merch table and Chris Masterson possessed a potty mouth that rivals my own. As a band, they write good songs that fall somewhere between Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris and the Rankin Family. I didn’t buy their record that night but I will soon.

This wasn’t the best show I’ve ever seen Earle play, but would I go next time Earle comes to town based on it? You’re damned right I would.

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