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Steve Earle and The Dukes, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, April 2003

I like Steve Earle’s voice. His lyrics are intelligent and he sings in a variety of veins which might be called, loosely, "Country". I only know his music from Nick Barraclough and Mike Harding on Radio 2. I haven’t listened to his CDs and am prepared to be enlightened. He was much loved by The Clash and later worked with traditional Irish musicians. How is he all these things to all these people?

Son Nat, who persuaded me to see Chuck Berry years ago, has bought his brother and me birthday tickets for this gig. On arrival. I wonder if it’s time I started going to boy band gigs or whatever, in the hope of seeing an audience which isn’t just middle-aged blokes with dodgy T-shirts. The all-standing hall isn’t very full for the start of this second of 2 nights at the venue.

Support is Jeff Finlin from Nashville - acoustic strumming of the Richie Havens school, with a Les Paul toting partner on lead guitar, whose confidence grows as the set progresses. Finlin looks like that comedian, Dominic someone, who enjoyed a TV vogue a while back. For much of the time, I couldn’t penetrate his accent to hear his lyrics. The songs seemed a bit intense but were fairly well received in a tight half-hour set.

The hall fills up and Steve Earle comes on promptly at 8.45 with his backing band, The Dukes. He reminds me of Lowell George and the opening number could have been Little Feat. The band is good, loud rock often with jangly guitars or, sometimes, Earle on jangly mandolin and, once, banjo. Minimalist lights, which suit me, enable us to see the many changes of instruments. Different tunings add colour, but the instrumentation sounds a bit samey in 0places. The keyboards are used on only a couple of numbers by one of Earle’s sons, who doubles as roadie. There are also some acoustic songs for a bit of variety. Sound balance is good and Earle’s lyrics are mostly audible.

And here’s the crunch and the Clash connection. He is a writer with attitude. My sons tell me that I’d have known that from his CD sleeve notes. He doesn’t announce any songs but people seem to recognise most. He sings about the American who fought with the Taliban ("John Walker’s blues") and a 29-year old born in Oklahoma, now on Death Row – you could have heard a pin drop. The set is a bit of a curate’s egg. The good songs are good – "Copperhead Road", Galway girl", "Oh Amanda" and one about Woody Guthrie. My sons enjoy "Jerusalem", "Guitar town", and "My old friend the blues". Other songs seem unmemorable and draw a polite response.

In a fast paced 2 hours and 10 minutes on stage, he ignores requests shouted from the audience and hardly speaks to us except to be rattled by the requests ad for a dedication to Joe Strummer and a diatribe on the Iraq war after 6 energetic encore songs. He wonders if the sign is the stage is still relevant and doesn’t wish to show disrespect to any who had loved ones in harm’s way. I’d failed to see the anti-war sign on the drum kit – too old for this lark on all counts, it seems.

He is joined by his sons and Jeff Finlin to sing the song that the Dave Clark Five had one of their deservedly last hits with, about "... smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now" (pick the title out of that lot). Last number is a fine version of Nick Lowe’s "What’s so funny (‘bout peace, love and understanding)?"

I wondered, heretically, after an evening of mostly grim subject matter, why the event was enjoyable? Steve Earle’s songs are definitely enhanced by the band arrangements. To help me think, I’d have preferred fewer songs and announcements to put them into context. My sons disagree. All round, an interesting evening, good value for money at £18.50 (thanks Nat), which left me with the desire to get to know his songs better.

Copyright © John Scott Cree 2003

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