On the Low Highway with Steve Earle

Steve Earle on top form at le Trianon, Paris (Picture: copyright Jacqueline Jones 2013)
Steve Earle on top form at le Trianon, Paris (Picture: copyright Jacqueline Jones 2013)

A few years ago when I lived in Athens, gigging was something of an everyday event, the invitations one of the benefits, I suppose, of having a radio show. One week it was Nick Cave or Patti Smith; the next it might be Leonard Cohen or James Brown.

I seem to remember good nights with Sophie Solomon, Puressence, Kaiser Chiefs, Anthony and the Johnsons, Pavlov’s Dog and Calexico to name just a few as well as some of the local bands like Raining Pleasure, Mickey Pantelous and the Chessmates, Old House Playground and my friend Perri Pagonis’ band Dead City Jetz.

I realised at the time I was very lucky to have a job where people beg you to come and stick your name on the guest list.

Sadly, now that I no longer have such airwave leverage, it is a less frequent occurrence. Invitations are a thing of the past; like everyone else every ticket now has to be paid for. And that limits the amount of bands you go and see.

Last week, however, I was allowed off the leash – separate gigs from Steve Earle and The Undertones capped off by dinner on Saturday with my niece Mary Spender who was in Paris after a rapid week-long tour of the pubs and clubs in Germany.

Different artists, different sounds, united it seems by an insatiable desire to stand up on stage and perform, to express themselves through their music.

Steve Earle fans will roll up their saliva and hurl it somewhere in my general direction when they read this because in spite of my advancing years I am a relative newcomer to his work. Indeed, my first meeting with Earle came via the television show The Wire when he played a drugs councillor and also, in series 5, sang the theme tune – a superb cover of Tom Waits’ Way Down in the Hole.

But, those long-standing fans should also remember that every journey needs a first step and when I heard Earle singing, something triggered. Remember that name, I thought. And so it was that when my wife aka Jonesy noticed he was coming to Paris in October 2011, we climbed off our sofa and hung off the rail.

Le Trianon, Paris. Built in 1902 it retains its Belle Epoque charm
Le Trianon, Paris. Built in 1902 it retains its Belle Epoque charm

It was a great night. The band played three hours, Jonesy and I missed our last train home and ended up scouring the late night cafés of Paris until the RER opened up for business again at five in the morning.

It was a no-brainer to snaffle a couple of tickets to see him again last Monday at the Trianon, part of a Fargo Rock City Festival line-up that also included Two Gallants and Sallie Forde.

The theatre lends itself to great performances. Built as a music hall in 1902, it has that touch of Belle Epoque that evokes an ambience sometimes lacking in the grander theatres – all boxes and velvet curtains and the illicit promise of a shapely ankle.

Look at him from the wrong angle and you might think Earle was around even in the Belle Epoque but he is only 58. Having said that he has been around the block a few times – as well as under it and over it.

He has had seven wives (one of them he married twice) and a conviction for possession; he is a human rights activist who has campaigned tirelessly against the death penalty and owner of one of the finest beards known to humanity. All the credentials for the slightly other place country/rock music maestro.

His first recording was in 1982 and he seems to be getting better. if you haven’t heard him singing you have probably heard one of his songs. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris are among the hordes who have sung his work which stretches from country and bluegrass to some good old rock ‘n roll. It is table-thumping stuff which keeps the audience bouncing from start to finish.

This night was outstanding as he and the Dukes and Duchesses worked their way through a large part of the excellent new album The Low Highway, his 15th, including the title track, Invisible (see below) and the rousing That All You Got?, one of three songs that featured on David Simon’s The Wire follow-up Treme.

Steve Earle
Steve Earle on the street in Greenwich Village where he lives: he’s standing in exactly the same spot as Bob Dylan from the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Earle has always surrounded himself with fine musicians. His wife (no 7) Allison Moorer wasn’t alongside him this time on vocals but he got great support from the husband and wife team guitarist Chris Masterson and violinist Eleanor Whitmore, who also work together as The Mastersons, as well as Kelly Looney on bass and Will Rigby on drums.

Together they roar, the music creating a foot-stomping mosh pit that makes the floor bounce with every riff.

Beyond the music, the words resonate with humanity, humility and the other American dream. Not Scott Fitzgerald’s green light – “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” – nor that of the super-capitalist Gordon Gekko of “greed is good” fame.

This is the American dream of the road, the journey out west looking for a better life, the ramblin’ man, the metaphor of the journey of life lived on the road.

But never mind that. The bottom line was a stonking, stomping set.

They didn’t do three hours this time but that was probably a good thing; Jonesy and I just about made the station, tumbling into the last train home. Not so much on the road as off the rails.

In part 2, Barney turns back to the clock (about 30 years) as he heads to La Maroquinerie, Paris to see the legendary Derry band The Undertones.

©Barney Spender 2013