in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle.

After winding up the anthemic, pop-savvy sway of “Waiting for You” earlier tonight at Renfro Valley, Steve Earle shook his head, beamed a grin and offered a remark that was tantamount to an apology.

“It was the ‘80s.”

Why the self effacement for one of his own works let alone one of his performances? It might have been that the long forgotten song was one of the 10 compositions that made up “Copperhead Road,” Earle’s 1988 breakthrough album. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the record’s release, he devoted the first half of the concert to a complete performance of the album. That meant digging into the lesser known nuggets – the “chick tunes,” as Earle dismissively described them. But with the electric flexibility possessed by the current lineup of his longrunning Dukes band, Earle turned an exercise in nostalgic appeal into an expansive overview of how his storied career began connecting with a major audiences outside the country spectrum.

The five tunes constituting the album’s first side were, as Earle suggested, stronger. It offered haunting remembrances of Reagan-ism in the country carny yarn “Snake Oil” along with grim glimpses of a country just coming to grips with the post-Vietnam era. The popular title tune, which began the album and tonight’s performance, connected as much for its drug-smuggling danger element as for its more desperate, but humanistic profile of a Vietnam vet on the edge. More effective, though, was the less obvious “Johnny Come Lately,” with its Celtic mandolin/accordion jig delivery.

Earle offered insightful stories to go with the tunes, as well, including a reference to Irish upstarts The Pogues (which played on the recorded version of “Johnny Come Lately”). Color me skeptical, but my guess is this was the one and only time the band will ever get a shout out on a Renfro Valley stage. Another story, oddly enough, explained how the Oak Ridge Boys were the Nashville force largely responsible for getting Earle the recording contract that created career defining albums like “Copperhead Road.”

The rest of the program steered closer to the present with a setlist that boasted the similarly jig-worthy “The Galway Girl,” a heavily traditional country duet with Eleanor Whitmore of the The Mastersons (who served as members of The Dukes as well as the show’s fine opening act) on “I’m Still in Love With You” and a quartet of tunes from last years “So You Wannabe An Outlaw.” The latter concluded with the brooding electric doomsday call of “Fixin’ to Die,” which, in turn, bled into an equally foreboding, but highly faithful cover of “Hey Joe.”

Funny. Such a dark conclusion to the concert brought Earle and the Dukes back to the mean streets they know so well. Three decades on, they still can’t stay away from Copperhead Road.



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