For 48 hours, Madison is alt-country Shangri-La. Last night Texas badass Steve Earle blew the doors off the Barrymore Theatre. Tonight Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play Overture Center. In following Earle and his band, they have their work cut out for them.
Earle threw down a take-no-prisoners show, a delirious barn fire that was one part rock 'n' roll, one part mountain music -- and the rest an evangelical, political pep rally.
The show was a bottomless well, 33 songs that ran the table of Earle's career, from his early, restless romp into Nashville country rock, on into his trailblazing bluegrass obsessions. The set was spiked throughout with his fertile new tunes, performed with band mate and (sixth) wife, the gifted Allison Moorer.
The new record, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, is named after a Hank Williams song, but connections to recklessness and roaming, for years the Earle family brand, end with the title. The sequence of songs is culled in part from grief lingering in the wake of his father's death three years ago. The project makes it clear that the recovering outlaw-poet no longer runs from his muse. He runs at it.
It doesn't hurt when you run in a pack that includes Son Volt guitarist Chris Masterson. Earle's only misstep last night was not letting him get wild. Still, Masterson held up his end of the bargain. His hollow-body electric playing gave loft to the music all night long. He took Earle's classic "Guitar Town" by the throat, coating the sarcastic tune with his own resentful phrasing.
Mid-show, Moorer stepped out from behind her upright piano and held the audience for three songs on her own. Her duets at the mike with Earle were highlights, though. The sweet and sour new tune "Heaven or Hell" was a showcase for their singing style, an intimate conversation that ended in a kiss.
This was stop number 27 on a 98-city tour that started in Seattle in June and will end in Dublin in November. If we think we're working hard in this heat, check out Steve Earle, his snap button shirt saturated in sweat an hour into the show. He plays his instruments like a hard-strumming caveman, especially the mandolin, which he gleefully shredded with a thumb pick during songs like "Harlan Man," a coal miner's union song he offered to the audience in a nod to the hard winter of politics here.
Earle calls this rendition of his band the Dukes (and the Duchesses). The Dukes make this act the hardes- rocking ensemble currently on tour. In addition to Masterson, the band includes former dB's drummer Will Rigby and Nashville veteran Kelly Looney on bass. Both have been with Earle on stage and in the studio since the late 1990s.
The Duchesses are Moorer and multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore. Four part harmonies were the norm. The vocals shaped the soaring, rocking "Jeruselum" into an electrified church song.
The songs tumbled out one after the next. "Copperhead Road" cooked, again with Earle's junkyard mandolin strumming. His Civil War trilogy, "Dixieland," "Harlan Man," and "The Mountain," was spellbinding. Whitmore's fiddle swarmed over "Galway Girl," a song that also featured Moorer's impeccable accordion work. The desperate "My Old Friend the Blues" was sung as if for the first time. Earle's ode to New Orleans, "This City," was at once a lament and a call to arms. Earle played this one on a guitar marked with the phrase "this machine floats," a Woody Guthrie message tweaked for the tragedies in the Crescent City.
Masterson went insane (finally) on "The Revolution Starts Now" which set up the night's encore sequence. It was an opportunity for Earle to demonstrate more than a superficial knowledge of the recent political turmoil in Wisconsin. "What's it feel like to be in the center of the world?" he asked, before requesting the exhausted crowd to join him in singing an emotional rendition of "Christmas Time in Washington."