Steve Earle has become one of our greatest songwriters, producers, impresarios and accumulator of roots music styles – as a widely eclectic master he is perhaps second only to Neil Young (who finds the essence of and takes ownership of most every style he touches) – in Earle’s case: roots rock, outlaw country, bluegrass, Irish folk, neo-psychedelia, folk balladeering.
Often and with feeling I have sung his praises, but with his growing independence and confidence, Earle has also allowed his rather unformed and starkly negative political opinions to rise to the fore as well, which is generally fine in song form with the advantage of artistic separation and role-playing, but over the course of a double-CD live set, his speechifying grows wearisome in short order and detracts from the musical experience. (Frankly, I am now reluctant to see Earle live again for fear I will not be able to contain an impulse to shout out “shut the fuck up” in the middle of one of his lectures.)
That musical experience is powerful: his band the Jukes (Kelley Looney – bass, Roscoe Ambel – guitars and keyboards, Will Rigby – drums) rock harder live than on the studio versions of songs like “America v. 6.0,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Copperhead Road,” “Guitar Town,” “Jerusalem” (which here sounds uncannily like Bruce Springsteen), “The Unrepentant,” and a rousing cover of “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding.” The “Bluegrass Jukes” (Tom O’Brien – mandolin, Darrell Scott – banjo, Dennis Crouch – acoustic bass, Casey Dreissen – fiddle) are also outstanding. Their set – “Hometown Blues, “The Mountain” “Harlan Man” – is the most affecting of the album.
But ultimately Earle is done in by his own rather self-satisfied and smug view of the world – and the state of America today. This live set also reveals what I had long suspected: Earle is an expressive, confident, and easily identifiable singer, but he is not a great one.