You’re never quite sure what to expect from Steve Earle.
Will he be the incendiary rock and roller, taking no prisoners as he rips into the politicians? Will he be treading the dusty roads of Americana, grumbling his way through tales of the Depression?
Will he be the playful country troubadour – or the tormented soul with the weight of the world on his shoulders?
You pays your money and you takes your chances.
Thankfully, the first night of Earle’s 2013 UK tour at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, lived up to anticipation. It’s been a while since we saw him in full band mode, a far cry from the bare bones Townes solo shows.
In a brave move he played not just some of the tracks from new album The Low Highway – but all of them. Serving up new material can be tricky; delivering a dozen new songs commercial suicide.
But such is the strength of the new material that there was no uncomfortable shuffling in the Symphony Hall’s plush seats.
An opening triple whammy of The Low Highway, 21st Century Blues and Calico County – the latter a rabble-rousing rocker that the Stones would surely envy – set the tone. Earle was here to rock and roll.
The 20 or more songs that followed made for a two-hour set that, apart from the occasional muddle, was carefully balanced.
Sure, we got the standards – Guitar Town, Copperhead Road, Someday and a fragile My Old Friend The Blues – but they were matched by Pocket Full Of Rain (Earle’s first public piano playing in the UK), After Mardi Gras and the rollicking Down The Road Pt II.
Earle says that the addition of husband and wife Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore – who perform as The Mastersons when not touring with the Dukes – has made his band the best he has ever had the pleasure to lead.
Certainly, Masterson’s command of pedal steel swoon and rock and roll licks adds new texture to Earle’s guitar grumble, while Whitmore’s pure vocal and harmonies are gorgeous. She plays a mean fiddle and mandolin, too.
There’s attitude there, too. When the boss mixes up the setlist – it is the first night of the tour, after all – she gives him a feisty WTF glare when she finds herself on the wrong side of the stage.
Cemented by the tied and tested rhythms of longtime bassist Kelley Looney and drummer WIll Rigby, it’s a new incarnation of The Dukes (And The Duchesses) that takes songs both old and new into new territory.
Among highlights was a trio of tunes inspired by New Orleans. That All You Got? and Love’s Gonna Blow My Way (his character’s famously unfinished song from the Treme TV series) were playful; This City a love letter to post-Katrina courage.
Two of the new songs were deeply moving.
Invisible addressed the issue of recession, with a preamble about a local church’s soup kitchen which had been open for years, unnoticed by Earle. It was only when the queues stretched out the door he realised it was there.
During the encores, Earle talked of his kids back home, revealing that one of them was born with autism.
He wrote Remember Me for the three-year-old in case his own well-documented drink and drugs past should ever catch up with his health while the youngster is too young to build a lifetime’s memories of his father.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
But, lest you think Steve Earle was getting sentimental in his old age, the gig ended with a raucous The Revolution Starts Here – a defiant call to arms which ended in squalls and sputters of angry feedback.
Welcome to the Low Highway to Hell.