REVIEW: Steve Earle – Limelight, Belfast
Local promoters The Real Music Club have a sterling reputation for bringing high-quality alt-country to the city and tonight’s early-doors turnout suggests that this evening is an event long-marked in many calendars.
It’s to a healthy crowd and a buzz in the air that Earle walks on stage to introduce support act The Mastersons: exuding laid-back charisma, he playfully chides talkative audience members at the front with a sarcastic “It’s OK, keep talking – you have the fucking floor”. It certainly suggests there’s little ego at play, and though over the course of the evening many might have wished he’d taken a harder line on chatter, it’s easy to warm to his promise that he’ll be out personally schilling merchandise after the show “because diesel’s damn expensive here”.
Brooklyn-based husband-and-wife duo The Mastersons immediately capitalize on the goodwill, and whilst the upbeat country pop of a song boasting the chorus “I wish I was anywhere but here” is a mischievous choice of opener, it’s apparent from the outset that they’re here to win friends – or indeed, as vocalist / guitarist Chris Masterson puts it, “we have thirty minutes to make you fall in love with us”. His goofy demeanour sits slightly at odds with the perhaps purposely-aloof airs and graces of wife Eleanor Whitmore, though they undoubtedly hit their stride through a set of pop-infused country that often owes as much to The Bangles as Americana. Occasionally some harmonies falter, perhaps in a struggle to be overly-showy, but they nail the likes of the tender ‘I Found You’ and the impressive vocal layering of ‘The Other Shoe’. Fulfilling their duties as warm-up act with aplomb and also coaxing a sing-along from the crowd before leaving; whilst it’s not completely the rush of love at first sight, it’d be fair to say that many are in the first stages of an infatuation.
For those unaware of the connection, it will have been something of a surprise to see the support act take the stage once more as members of Steve Earle’s band, complemented by drums, double bass and of course the man himself. Wasting no time, they let rip with the simple shuffle of ‘Baby Baby Baby (Baby)’, immediately evoking images of dingy road house bars and possibly even the Patrick Swayze movie of the same name – since the crowd is ready to jump on this train, there’s thankfully no need for chicken wire in front of the stage though. New album Terraplane is a paean to the diverse horizons of Texan blues, so whilst some stylistic changes occur, Earle places the genre front-and-centre instead of leading with a hit. ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now’ is a carefree strut that sees him address his current freedom from relationship responsibility – the first of tonight’s nods to his many storied divorces. Follow-up duet ‘My Baby’s Just As Mean As Me’ follows a similar theme, with ‘The Duchess’ Eleanor Whitmore evoking exasperated bittersweet comedy – it’s almost as if Peg and Al Bundy played at being Johnny Cash and June Carter.
Whilst it’s good to sample the new material, it was only ever a matter of time until the band cast an eye backwards towards Earle’s extensive back catalogue. It’s no surprise to hear the whoops of recognition that greet the country twang of ‘My Old Friend The Blues’, prompting not only applause but the first “yeoooo” of the evening. The blue-collar feel of ‘Someday’ increases the energy level further and ‘Guitar Town’ sees the houselights fire up to display the crowd – a crowd a tad more advanced in age than the venue might be used to entertaining of a Friday night – busting out their best wedding-disco dances and warming up proceedings enough for the one-two of the jubilant ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘Galway Girl’. Funnily enough, it’s something of a treat to hear the latter in the context of Steve Earle’s back-catalogue and not the precursor to the moment a bunch of groomsmen at a wedding are inebriated enough to take to the dancefloor with their ties round their heads.
Crowd-pleasing is of course a given at such gigs, but there’s always the danger that stoking a fire makes it harder to burn out, and as Earle’s material engaging the darker aspects of his past – a chequered history of troubled relationships and substance abuse – affords him the material and honesty to write the likes of ‘CCKMP (Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain’)’. Unfortunately for a small but significant portion of this crowd – a crowd certainly old enough to know better – it’s more important to continue the revelry. As chatter becomes noise, key songs and even heartfelt between-song chatter from Earle in the form of an anecdote about the reality of climate change is all but drowned out.
Faced with nowhere to go but back up-tempo, ‘That All You Got’ and the ZZ-Top tinged swagger of ‘Go-Go Boots are Back’, a ditty that sees Earle tackle his roving eye in his advancing years with wry humour fare better before a final dip back to the current album to once again cement his veneration of the blues genre, and whilst the clichés of the guitar-slinging ‘Tennessee Kid’ invoking Mephistopheles at a crossroads are on-the-nose, they’re an entertaining nod to one of its staples. ‘King Of The Blues’ gets dedicated to BB King, though it’s not hard to imagine Earle identifying with the lyric about being “…a lover, a fighter, a prophet and a fool” himself: his songbook suggests it all and more. An outro jam extends into a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ – a neat effect that joins the dots on the exploration of genres; a celebration of the blues and the tenebrous links to rock and country, never once sounding incongruent. A bonus track – a new song denouncing the KKK and urging Mississippi to follow suit in taking down the Confederate emblem sees him keep his political eye current, whilst neatly appropriating the classic lyric “Look away Dixieland”. Earle exits the stage knowing a job is well done, flipping a good natured middle-fingered bird salute on the way, leaving a satisfied crowd – some easily satisfied, some who turned up satisfied, and some no doubt intrigued at what might have been without those happy to pay £35 to blether between themselves in attendance. Still, it’s a set that provided much more meat than the greatest hits sets some might have preferred. Roland McIntyre, GiggingNI.com