Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
f you didn't realize Steve Earle had a new disc out, "The Low Highway," it would have been no problem realizing that quite and quickly.
That was because Earle started the two-hour show with three straight tracks from "The Low Highway," and he would not be done for the night. The title track of was a midtempo effort following by the more upbeat, harder edged side of Earle with 21st Century, before launching into the dirty Calico County.
"The Low Highway" is not Earle's best effort ever, but it's a solid one with lots of good songs, which he proudly trotted out on this evening.
About the only problem - and it was one that replicated itself a number of times during the night - was that Earle's sometimes bluesy, sometimes gravelly vocals were simply mixed too low for the music being generated. The words became a blur, too bad because Earle has something to say.
He saved some of that for his between song comments, including about Warren Hellman, the late big-time music supporter (he funded the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, which Earle has played a number of times in the past and going forward) and ultra-wealthy investor. Before launching Warren Hellman's Banjo from the new disc, Earle joked that Hellman was the only "investment banker I was friends with."
On the political front, Earle is a direct descendant of Woody Guthrie and proudly carries that mantle much in the way that Bruce Springsteen does. Fortunately, Earle does not overburden the listener with his politics, but he doesn't shy away from his views either. A common theme was the need to care for each other.
Earle changed it up musically with country, rock, blues and more. That would include After Mardi Gras, one of only songs he did not write solo. The song's a bit different, with a bit of a New Orleans feel.
He delved back into his catalogue with two chestnuts - the traditional country sounding Guitar Town and the country rocker Copperhead Road. The songs were a very solid one-two punch, but they also didn't define Earle on this night. Clearly, he was not interested in resting on past laurels and his extensive catalogue.
Earle was backed by an able quartet, including mainstays Will Rigby of The dBs fame on drums (he's been around since 1998) and upright/electric bassist Kelley Looney, a mainstay for about a quarter century. The new comers are guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle/piano player Eleanor Whitmore, who also helped out on backing vocals. Whitmore offered solid vocals on the new I Thought You Should Know and often spiced the songs with her fiddle playing.
Earle called this his best touring band, although it was unclear what the problem was with The Dukes. However one comes down on that vote, this band worked out just fine.
After more than two decades into his career, a healthy Earle (heck, the guy even talked about the fact that he worked out in New York City and he's living a healthier lifestyle) still has a lot to say with both new and old songs. No wonder he ended with The Revolution Starts Now.
The Mastersons - a duo comprised of Masterton and Whitmore - opened the evening with half a dozen songs, mainly from last year's "Birds Fly South" CD. They worked well together with some roots, countryish songs. Whitmore could used a bit more presence in general to go along with her talent, but The Mastersons set the table for what was soon to come.