Steve Earle & The Dukes/The Mastersons - Vinyl Music Hall, May 15 2015

...a little bit late, but...

Confession: I'm probably never going to Hangout Fest (unless the Replacements show up). I have never been a fan of gigantic crowds (went to one Lollapalooza in my twenties, loved it but never returned), parking three miles away, or spending a half-day in Southern Charm, a.k.a. withering humidity. Give me a great band (or solo artist, too) in a dive bar or similarly close-quarters venue, and I am at peace.
(End pensive musings)

So, as Friday Night At The Hangout Festival was managing to go on without me, I went to see Steve Earle & The Dukes at Vinyl Music Hall. Funny thing is, I had forgotten about the show happening at all. While I'd observed over the years that Earle was plugging away on the road and releasing album after album of well-reviewed new material, I hadn't actively listened to anything he'd done in quite awhile. I received a few texts from my old friend and landlord (and roots-music lover, supporter of Radio Free Pensacola) Marshall, first asking me if I was on the way down to see the show, then imploring me to try to make it down if at all possible. "Why not," I'm thinking. If I'm not going to throw my (self-awarded) Music Afficianado ass into Hangout Fest (with its admittedly great lineup), the least I can do is drive fifteen minutes downtown to see one of America's most consistent and provocative songwriters along with an undoubtedly stellar band (more on that in a bit).

I will be eternally grateful to Marshall for pushing the right buttons, and drawing me out that night. This was one of the best shows I've ever seen.

From his first sung line, through Copperhead Road, Guitar Town, and his show-ending covers of Hey Joe (during which I tweeted, enraptured, "When did Built To Spill show up?") and encore Wild Thing, what stood out as a highlight for me was how Earle's voice has held up, midway through his fourth decade in touring and recording. When someone says an artist could "sing the phone book and hear applause when he's done", Steve Earle's one of the people they're talking about.

And not to be outdone, the current lineup of The Dukes came to play as well. I don't know that I've ever seen an instrument-per-band-member count that high. And the four Dukes (and Earle, too) definitely came to play all of them and play them well. From what looked like a full-guitar-sized mandolin, vintage Fenders and Martins, to a fiddle through a guitarist's pedalboard, there was no sound beyond the reach of the Dukes. I can't say enough about violinist/guitarist/stringed-things/vocalist Eleanor Whitmore (also of openers the Mastersons with husband/fellow Duke Chris Masterson), and her massive tones and phrasing throughout. What came out of her alternated between what sounded like a frenzied slide guitarist or just lush-but-loud My Bloody Valentine-like sheets of hum. Her presence in the duet My Baby's Just As Mean As Me was a true standout in a night full of 'em. Also in the band? Current, and long-term, Dukes drummer Will Rigby, of the DBs and Alex Chilton fame. He's still pounding away, with tasteful authority.

Earle led his band through a long, and unwaveringly tight set, briefly stopping for air after his (arguably) most well-known song, the contrabandit anthem Copperhead Road, a little early in the set list so, "all you people on parole and probation can take off now and get home before your ankle monitor goes off and you get that phone call." He's still got that barb-wire, ready to swing.

All in all, I wouldn't have traded a night like this for a night at any other festival this year. I can't imagine this fish will ever want to be that far out of his comfy waters again. Check out Steve Earle's latest, Terraplane, and if you see he's coming to your town (or back to this one), I strongly encourage you to go, to see an American Original (as unoriginal as that title is).



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