Live Review: Steve Earle & The Dukes

Clocks and Calendars, Rednecks and Bolsheviks, Horses and Water: A review of Steve Earle and the Dukes at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille.

By: Steven Rafferty
When you look at a calendar it reinforces the myth that time is linear and that moments are discreet. If you look at an old-fashioned wall clock, one with hands for hours, minutes and seconds, you might start to get the sense that time is cyclical. If you go see Steve Earle and the Dukes on their current tour, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of his classic Copperhead Road album, you will probably find yourself trying to balance these two opposing notions of time as they relate to the music and the mission of the man that Earle is now and the men that he has been.
On December 5th of this year, Earle and the Dukes brought their show to Jergel’s Rhythm Grille in Warrendale, PA and I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the sold-out show. The 600-person capacity at this venue gets spread out between bar seating, a dining area with tables, and a dance floor between the two. For the lucky few who can get it, there is reserved seating on a second-floor, wrap-around balcony. The layout of the room served to highlight both the linear and the cyclical aspects of the thirty years that have passed since the album’s release.
I was standing twenty-five feet from the stage on the dance floor waiting for the show to begin. The floor was where you wanted to be if you were there to be part of the show; if you were in the present moment. If you were at the bar, in the dining area or looking down from the balcony, chances were good that you had come to spend an evening reliving past glories from thirty years ago.
You don’t have to drive far from downtown Pittsburgh to leave Google and Uber in the rearview and find yourself in farmlands, industrial parks and the most recent addition to the mix, the oil and gas industry. You could say that the music Earle was making in the 80’s was written to folks like these: Songs about small-town boys, their problems with bosses and banks, their loves and losses, their dreams and disappointments.
These albums came before the legendary excesses of Earle’s “Angry Young Man” had burnt the bridges into Nashville. There were a lot of folks in the crowd at Jergel’s who were there to see that Steve Earle.
Those who’ve stuck with Earle throughout his career know of his evolution into a sober man and a serious songwriter with an unapologetically left of Bolshevik (to borrow a phrase from Tom Morello) political agenda. Whereas his earlier albums seemed to be to and about the farmers, miners and roughnecks in his audience; his songwriting, performances and political action have come to be for those folks in a manner of speaking. He is agitating on their behalf.
From the reactions at the show it was clear that not everybody in his audience appreciates his help. Yes, there were roars of approval after every pointed observation from the stage. The choir was in the room and happy to be preached to. But, there was also some grumbling. At one point, Earle began picking a melody on his guitar while the Dukes took a break. He talked to the audience about his perspective on U.S. politics in the present moment. Behind me, a woman in her late thirties yelled “shut the f*#k up and play some music”. Somebody up near the stage must have been grumbling too because at one point, responding to one person in particular, Earle interrupted himself long enough to say: “Shut up! I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to everybody else”.
The music that night was fantastic. Earle’s exceptional skill as a songwriter was evidenced by the fact that even the lighter fare and love songs from the Copperhead Road album have stood the test of time. While some of his vocal range has been left by the side of the long road between now and then, his band, the arrangements they’re playing and his adaptability as a performer more than made up for the differences between the Nashville darling he was when he wrote those songs and the Hardcore Troubadour he has become.
While I’m sure that everyone in attendance that night enjoyed the music, I’m less certain what to make of the evening as a sum of its’ parts. Earle promised from the stage that he would be making a point of spending more time in areas like this one between now and the next Presidential election. A lot of the people in the audience that night greeted his promise with enthusiasm, ready to believe that he might be able to make a difference in the outcome. But things get tricky at the intersections of generations, political party affiliations and socioeconomic strata.
If the work that Earle is doing now for his audience is the water, then it is clear the horses will continue to come to him whenever and wherever he goes. How many of those horses will drink? How many will just stare at their own reflections on the water’s surface?

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