Photo (c) 2004 by Jane Lightfoot. All rights reserved.
I had the great privilege of seeing Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes up close at the Aladdin Theater in Portland last night. Singer-songwriter Earle was in fine voice, and he and his bluegrass chums ran through an excellent program for an enthusiastic, sellout crowd.
The show was done in the traditional style -- one mike, all five band members sharing it -- and the sounds were high, sweet, and lonesome. The songs were mostly all Earle's, with a couple of Gram Parsons-Chris Hillman numbers (including "Willin'") thrown in. The band -- Tim O'Brien on mandolin, Casey Driessen on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on bass, and Darrell Scott on banjo and dobro -- was extremely tight and smooth, sometimes running literally like clockwork, as the players weaved around the mike to "mix" the sound. O'Brien in particular is a master of the mandolin, and Scott coaxed some unfamiliar licks out of the banjo that didn't seem physically possible.
Earle, as many readers know, is a very political man these days. He performed a few of his more controversial numbers, which were very convincing when you're 15 feet away. He's got a highly political rock-band album coming out toward the end of August that will likely make a splash, and he's planning to spend a lot of time thereafter in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other battleground states stumping for Kerry. "This is the most important election of my lifetime," he said, and you could tell he meant it.
Earle proudly told the story of how he has been "banned from the Portland zoo." The last time he did a bluegrass show in town, up at that outdoor venue, he found out that the concert series was sponsored by a certain California-based bank. He proceeded to spend a good chunk of time on stage discussing with the audience how that particular bank specializes in bankrolling companies when they take over union shops and try to run the union out. Representatives of the bank were on hand to hear it all, and they threatened to pull the plug on the show right there. They reconsidered and let the Dukes finish, but Steve won't be invited back.
Good for him. As he said at one juncture last night, some people are criticizing artists these days for making political statements about what they see going on around them. "Hell, I thought that was our f*ckin' job," he said. Quoting from Pete Seeger, he reminded the audience that every song is political. "A lullaby is political -- to a baby."
Whatever you might think of his politics, Steve Earle is one of the very greatest artists working today. To hear his stories, told by the author himself in this compelling, uniquely American musical style, was balm for the soul. If he's coming to your town, run, don't walk, and get a ticket.