Legendary Americana roots rocker Steve Earle returned to New Orleans on Wednesday night for a lengthy set at the newly-reopened Civic Theatre – a welcome and impressive addition to the Big Easy’s collection of new venue offerings (also see The Joy and Saenger Theatres and Gasa Gasa).
Earle’s provocative and sometimes intense lyrical (and bantered) reflections throughout the set captured the zeitgeist of the past several years during a performance heavy on material from his 15th LP, 2013’s The Low Highway. His band The Dukes drove through “21st Century Blues” early on – and guitarist Chris Masterson quickly showed his chops right out of the gate as Earle gruffed with his street-smart snarl:
It’s hard times in the new millenium
Gettin’ by on just the bare minimum
Everything to lose and nothing to spare
Going to hell and nobody cares
Ain’t the future that Kennedy promised me
In the 21st century
Earle’s affinity and recent connection with the city of New Orleans (having played Harley on HBO’s Treme were reflected when Earle briefly spoke on Katrina, calling NOLA “America’s most culturally important city,” before playing the poignant and downright chilling “This City“:
Raising hell as we roll along
Gentilly to Vieux Carre
Lower 9, Central City, Uptown
Singing Jockamo fee nané
This city won’t ever drown.
Newer tracks like “After Mardi Gras” (also from The Low Highway) offered balance and a spot of hope from the more brooding fare. Songs like the familiar and earnest road warrior anthem “Guitar Town” received floor crowd’s full attention and roar of approval. Of course, Earle was also a bona-fied country mega star for a few brief moments, and the band blazed through his 1988 hit “Copperhead Road” with the frontman on mandolin and Masterson leading the drive on guitar. After giving a shoutout to the great musical billionaire benefactor Warren Hellman (whom he described as one of the “good rich people”) and his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass legacy during the banjo-fied “Warren Hellman’s Banjo,” Earle shared the vocal spotlight to drummer Will Rigby for a turn on the rapid-firin’ “Ricky Skaggs Tonight” and bassist Kelley Looney took to the acoustic guitar and vocals for a rendering of “Free Men.”
Fans who ponied up to check out the new digs and Earle’s set got even more than they bargained for and the troubadour laid his spirit, soul and convictions bare on the stage for over two hours, in keeping with the Great American storyteller’s reputation that precedes him.