A Sober Steve Earle Was at His Musical Best at Chautauqua

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Even if he or she is in peak form — like country rocker Steve Earle surely is, as evidenced by his new blues album, Terraplane — a true musical legend always ends up putting on a show that's about more than the music. That was a bad thing when egomaniac Bono repeatedly prostrated himself at the Pepsi Center earlier this year while walking through his life story. It was a halfway good thing when a chatty, fall-down-drunk Eddie Vedder celebrated Pearl Jam’s 24th anniversary in Denver last fall.

Friday night, at old-fashioned Chautauqua Auditorium, in Boulder, the sixty-year-old Earle was captivating as he put on a veritable clinic of country, blues and home-fried rock and roll, with self-deprecating tales of his seven-marriage love life and his widely publicized struggles with alcohol and narcotics.

After opening the show with “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” (featuring Earle on harmonica and the “Big Boss Man” nod “Can’t you hear me wail my call?”), Earle commented on how hard it is to make a powerful blues album if you’re from the South, “because the bar is set pretty high."

"There’s no such thing as a Los Angeles shuffle,” he quipped. 

Though the sound at this particular show was uncharacteristically bad, with the bass almost non-existent and the drums as flat as you’d expect at a high-school battle of the bands, multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore (who soared on violin most of the night) and lead guitarist Chris Masterson shone. Not only did they bring snippets of Earle’s fifteen-album catalogue (plus a little Hendrix) to life, but Whitmore and Masterson also showed what anyone who has seen a top-flight country band knows: Country’s finest are the most versatile and tight — and arguably the best — musicians in popular music.

When the “'80s hits" portion of the show kicked in (beginning with Guitar Town’s title track and “Copperhead Road”), Earle and his Dukes finally got some energy back from the virtually all-white, middle-aged Boulder crowd, partly by doing something it’s been hard not to notice at concerts lately. During anthemic instrumental passages of well-known tunes, everyone in the band (except the drummer, of course) walked four or five paces closer to the audience, which went wild.
Earle, for his part, spent most of his between-song banter joking about his wild past. He mused on his failed relationships, stumped for action on climate change, and deservedly gave himself praise for using his early ‘90s bottoming-out (heroin, cocaine, weapons charges, etc.) to transform himself from a Grammy-winning mess to an outspoken, recovered — and humble — musical icon who is also a respected actor and poet.

“After the show, I’ll be at the merch table,” Earle said at one point, “because diesel is expensive.”

Earle — who is currently single and looking relatively healthy, with a salt-and-pepper beard and Santa Claus physique — also touched on his seven marriages (two of them to the same woman) by commenting that at least he “gets to keep the songs,” though not necessarily the royalties.

“Goodbye,” which Earle (whose affable stage presence has moved closer to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s) called “the first song I wrote sober,” was delivered beautifully, sung with gut-wrenching clarity and common sense. He followed it by joking that when he “sees the mirror out of the corner of my eye, I think, ‘Who the fuck let Allen Ginsberg in here?’”

Other than the darkly powerful song-poem “The Tennessee Kid,” from his new album, Earle’s high point at Chautauqua was following the pointed self-criticism — “A lot of these songs have a tendency to make my [substance abuse] sound a lot more fucking fun than it was" — with the inescapable misery of “CCKP (Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain).”

For a bona fide living legend whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Earle was remarkably self-effacing, which was even more interesting for those of us who’d seen his son, Justin Townes, who is also a recovering addict, play the Fox Theatre last year. The younger Earle, who plays a lighter, mellower form of country rock, also regaled Boulder with comical, earnest tales of debauchery.

One hopes that the few young people inside Chautauqua Auditorium on Friday night (side note: Why don’t they open the big doors and let the music out anymore?) trusted the elder Earle’s lesson that they can write, and play, great music without getting in as much trouble as he once did.

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