Back in January, Steve Earle and Willie Nile had to cancel their City Winery show because of our awful New York winter weather. It's April now, though still too cold for me, and the gentlemen reconvened with us for a warm, glad evening right after Easter.
Willie Nile opened the show with force and great skill, with plenty of songs from his most recent records, the acclaimed and award-winning American Ride (2013) and If I Was A River (2014). A first-class singer-songwriter and performer himself, he is ever gracious and appreciative of other musicians and wordsmiths. He was thrilled to be opening for, and at the end of his set, performing with Earle, and said so more than once. He dedicated one song to Gregory Corso, and was happy not having to explain to this crowd who Corso is. At the piano, he dedicated "Lost" to John Lennon, and told a moving story about Lennon in the recording studio down the hall from the one Nile was using, on what would prove to be the night Lennon died.
Steve Earle loves a hometown crowd of folks who are, for a firmly transplanted Texan, fellow New Yorkers. Earle's set felt autobiographical on this night; in his smaller solo shows, with his long stories between the songs, and contextualizing of them, Earle often makes things feel this way. This is a very good reason to go hear him in such a space. A longtime performer at the City Wineries across the country, Earle clearly likes the venues -- because Steve Earle doesn't do what he doesn't like.
He opened with new songs from Terraplane (with Steve Earle & The Dukes, 2015). "Ain't Nobody's Daddy Now," and "You're The Best Lover That I Ever Had." "Evuh," "lovuh," in that Texas accent, propelled by his down & dirty rhythmy guitar, yes indeed.
The new record takes its name from Robert Johnson's blues, and Earle not only feels, but revels in, the weight of past greats. "What do you do when you're a young musician and you have Manse Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins in the same room? It's a big deal when you make a blues record in Texas. The bar is high." Terraplane now raises that bar for singer-songwriters to come. Earle paused for a moment, flipped the cap off a bottle of Poland Spring as if it were a Lone Star longneck, and grinned. "So there had to be a kind of Lightnin' thing" on Terraplane. Then he sang "King of the Blues."
Segues are a Steve Earle strength. "Speaking of the blues," he said softly, and with no intro, none needed, melted into "My Old Friend The Blues." A collective sigh, and corresponding melt, from the crowd. After "Tom Ames's Prayer," Earle said, "I wrote that song when I was twenty years old. One of the few I still play [from then]. It fucks up your guitar. It is precisely the sort of song one writes when one is twenty years old." What do you write half a lifetime later? "I can't remember not believing in God," he said, recalling his growing up Methodist, "where it is more of an insurance policy in case there really is a God." Earle now sings another kind of prayer. "Now this is the kinda song you write when you're 55 years old." The song: "God is God."
A Steve Earle concert is part bar gig, part camp meeting, part didactic learning experience, part master class in all things with strings, sexy, gritty, and funny as hell. He reached for a harmonica and found it somewhat compromised by prior play; that is to say, dirty. "I apologize to anyone tryin' to eat anything at these front tables -- it's an unsanitary fuckin' instrument," said Earle with a charming smile, as he cleared it and launched into "Dixieland."
Ladies are always present in an Earle show. "For what's her name, wherever the hell she is," he announces as he begins "Now She's Gone." "Ok, let's see. Same girl, different harmonica. There's no direct correlation between the quality of the song and the girl." Beginning "Goodbye," he admitted, "yes, this is the chick song portion of the program. It prevents my audience from brawling. And if it weren't here, I'd look out at y'all, and everyone here would look like me." The hits kept coming: "Sparkle and Shine"; "Valentine's Day," which Earle called "the flagship of the whole chick song fleet." There were just as many chicks of all ages as there were Earleish dudes around me, and we love you, Steve, with or without all those songs you wrote for all those other gals.
Earle broke out a new instrument for us, an octave mandolin made for him by Steve Gilchrist, in Australia. "Actually, I'd call it a bouzouki, but I wouldn't call it that goin' through airport security," said Earle, admiring it as he strapped it on. "Me with this fuckin' beard. No." He strummed lightly, and richness filled the room. "This sounds like God."
Having recently sold his home near Woodstock, New York, which he spoke of wistfully and warmly, Earle is now based in a new apartment in the West Village. With his windows open at night, he listens to the voices from the sidewalks. This Texas boy is a New Yorker now, and glad about it. "I do not understand New Yorkers who get on the subway with fucken earbuds in. They're missing all the songs." Everyone sang along to "City of Immigrants. " At the close of "Remember Me," written for, and in every concert dedicated to, Earle's youngest child John Henry, Earle bestowed a kiss on his new mandolin (or bouzouki) as he put it away.
Sometimes Earle's intros just stand alone. A long musing upon New York City water as the best in the world (true), and our need to ban fracking permanently and not just on an administration-by-administration basis to protect that water (also true), concluded with Earle laughing. Announcing "And this has nothing to do with fracking," he crashed down "Copperhead Road."
He ended the night with two encores, both classics, one a goodbye and one a big loud hello. "Goodbye Guitar Town" felt to me like a farewell to Woodstock, where Earle was welcomed as a neighbor by the many musicians there, played often at venues like Levon Helm's home and the Bearsville Theater, and seemed happy when you saw him around. "Guitar Town," though, is alive and well and is Manhattan, now, for Earle. His performance of his best-known song was flashing and fine, and, even for a guy loaded with attitude, fuller of it than usual, with ad libs and shouts and hard flashing riffs. "Everybody told me ya can't get far / On thirty-seven dollars and a Jap guitar," he sang, and yelled in response to his own lyrics, "Yeah? WATCH." Yeah, we're watching, Steve, and listening. We'll stay that way. Right bootheel stamping time, words perfectly in place and meaning much, blue-and-white bandana wrapped around his strumming or fingerpicking wrist, something with strings being done right in his hands -- that's Steve Earle, y'all.