Review: In Clearwater, Steve Earle delivers a "pretty f***in’ country" set for a sold-out Capitol Theatre

And he mostly left Trump alone.

“This record, it’s pretty fuckin’ country,” Steve Earle drawled from the stage of the Capitol Theater Sunday night. He’d just finished opening his set with five consecutive tunes from his six-month-old album, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, a self-penned homage to the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings, early Willie Nelson and that ilk.  

And yeah, it was pretty fuckin’ country — in a good way. Pretty much the whole show was. He was backed by his band The Dukes, which now includes a pedal steel player and a fiddler to go along with guitars (Earle and a sideman), bass and drums. The relaxed ensemble exhibited casual mastery over a variety of roots idioms, from classic country at an array of tempos, to various iterations of bluegrass to slight detours into Celtic music and blues.

At 62, Earle is one of those veteran artists whose fan base is so steadfast that he can heavy up his shows with brand new material (he played nine from Outlaw.) But he gave the sold-out crowd of 727 ticketholders plenty more. Earle dipped back 31 years to perform a troika of songs from Guitar Town, his debut album that shook up the country music establishment by reaching No. 1 on the charts. In succession, he played ballads “My Old Friend the Blues” and “Someday,” followed by a rollicking turn at the title title song.  

He pleased folks — folks like me — who discovered him during his mid-‘90s post-heroin addiction comeback by playing tunes like “Hard-Core Troubadour” and “Taneytown.” He touched on concept albums: “You’re the Best Lover That I’ve Ever Had,” from last year’s Texas blues-themed Terraplane; and “I’m Still in Love With You” and “Harlan Man” from Mountain, his 1999 collaboration with bluegrass stalwarts The Del McCoury Band. By and large, the songs that weren’t already country were given more countrified treatments than their recorded versions.  

Earle has one of the most distinctive voices — call it soul-twang — in roots music. He’s not lost one iota of the deep drawl of his Texas upbringing. Its gargled-with-gravel ruggedness puts an imprint on any song he performs. And the voice has remained robust, not devolved into a struggling croak like some of his peers.  

One segment didn’t do the concert’s pacing any favors. About halfway in, Earle launched into an extended soliloquy lauding his favorite high school teachers (before he dropped out) and musical mentors Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. A long anecdote about how he and musician friends like Rodney Crowell handled Clark’s death last year verged on ponderous. (It might have been storytelling gold to Clark fans, but for the rest of us, it took the air out of the show.) A lugubrious tribute to Clark, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” followed. 

Still and all, Earle has earned his moments of overindulgence on stage. He compensated with passages of pure joy (the Celtic gem “Galway Girl”), the Utopian anthem “City of Immigrants,” (replete with sing-along) and deeply committed lefty politics (an epic “Jerusalem,” preambled with a recitation: “I do not believe in nationalism. I do not believe in tribes,” and so on). 

Those hoping for an anti-Trump diatribe had to make do with the simple kiss-off: “What the fuck is wrong with him?” Such a casual dismissal hit the funny bone. 

While Earle’s set fell a bit short of being transformative, it was an entirely pleasing, at times moving, performance that showed that country music is the man’s best lane.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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