The lights go down, Johnny Cash’s ‘Rusty Cage’ plays on the PA and onto the lit stage trundle Mr Steve Earle and his Dukes to entertain the full house at tonight’s show for close on two hours. Steve Earle & The Dukes are a seven piece country rock band hailing from the Southern states of the USA.
‘So You Wannabe An Outlaw’ opens the show and a laid back Steve Earle sports a long, grey twinged beard, bandana and dog tags round his neck. Earle is gruff and he growls his way through the song like a slow rolling freight train through the American mid west.
What you know as country music is twangy guitar and fiddle and is beautifully enacted through ‘The Firebreak Line’ and this tonight is an appreciative audience that, let’s be honest, are unlikely to be moshing. A quick look around sees mainly a whole bunch of 40 somethings and older.
‘Sunset Highway’ displays tinges of the great Roy Orbison and it is a relaxed chilled show in its early stages. It’s a full house and there is a lot of chatter which unfortunately nearly drowns out the low spoken deep tones of Steve Earle when he talks. He isn’t likely to raise his voice though. The audience find their voice, firstly in ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ and then ‘Someday’ lights a blue touch paper of sorts. Its like they have waited patiently long enough but are now getting what they came to hear.
The three guitarists step out in front of their monitors to end the song ‘Guitar Town’ with a Hank Marvin inspired Shadows style guitar sound. Steve Earle is just doing his thang! He introduces the band, the audience cheer each announcement and you wonder will they ultimately remember the names. You suspect that is the norm. ‘I’m Still in Love With You’ is realistically one of those good old fashioned country tunes you would be likely to hear at your Grandparents house on a Sunday morning on the wireless.
Earle says he doesn’t believe in nationalism, borders or hopeless cases. He confesses that once upon a time he was one of those hopeless cases. Recalling coming to Belfast for the first time many years ago and seeing the armoured police wagons, he remembers people saying it would not end, but it did. He says “I believe in truth, beauty, love, God and Jerusalem”. ‘Jerusalem’ is Bob Dylan harmonica inspired and is a piece of inspiration. It comes from the heart.
Earle tells a story of meeting Irish band The Pogues in North London some thirty years ago and recording ‘Johnny Come Lately’, a song that truly sends a shiver up your spine. ‘Galway Girl’ is a very overplayed song across the live sets for many a band but it gets an airing and fortunately or otherwise, depending how you view it, goes down well with this Belfast crowd.
The biggest roar of the night comes with the first few bars of the pipe intro and kick drum of the unmistakeable ‘Copperhead Road’. This is Steve Earle in a nutshell in one song to many people in the Limelight tonight. If you close you eyes and just take in the magnificence of ‘Taneytown’ you can only image the great Neil Young standing on stage playing alongside Earle. What a combination that would be.
It would be remiss not to comment on the band’s pedal steel guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson. The bushy moustache, dark black stubble and baseball cap give this guy a look of gas station mechanic by day but he is ultimately a superbly talented guitar player by night. Safe to say he must hold legendary status within the band.
‘Hey Joe’ by Jimi Hendrix gets the cover treatment, it includes a little bit of Trump bashing, and also allows Chris Masterson, part of the support act The Mastersons and indeed a Duke, to indulge himself on lead guitar.
There is an encore. ‘Ben McCulloch’, to be described easily, as literally a story properly put alongside a perfect tune. It is that simple sometimes.
Steve Earle finishes the set by giving some of his views on life saying the last record was not that political because he didn’t know ‘it’ was going to happen. ‘It’ being the election of President Donald Trump. The next one will be totally country, but more political he vows. He adds that he feels the need to apologise for his President.
He finishes with the statement ‘Romance is dreaming until it comes true’, before launching into ‘The Girl On The Mountain’ and this indeed ends the show in a subdued intimate fashion. Even those who are not self proclaimed Earle fans cannot have failed to be enthralled and entertained with what he gave us tonight. It was that good.
Photos: Michael Barbour