Richard’s friends Ronny and Liana are in town celebrating their wedding anniversary and bought us all tickets to see Steve Earle last night at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater. He was backed up by The Dukes and The Mastersons.
For anyone who’s never heard of Steve Earle, he writes incredibly moving heartsick songs about love, like the country duets Poison Lovers and When I Fall, and also shit-kicking personal-political anthems about America like The Revolution Starts Now and the famous Copperhead Road. He was also famous for being a wild drunk (he’s now 19 years sober) and crossing over the country / rock line with great success. I always kinda liked him, but I’d never actually seen him live until last night. Man, he really delivers.
And not just the music – he fully pours himself onto the stage. He’s got this giant heart that leaps out at you, washing you in his charming brand of integrity and authenticity. He tells story after story from his life, tying them into his songs. Like the time he walked by his local church recently with his friend Tim Robbins. He commented to Robbins that the church had just started serving meals to the poor. Robbins corrected him, saying they’ve been doing that since he was a kid – he knew because he used to be an altar boy in that church. Then Earle realized that he’d only noticed the soup kitchen now because the lines had become so long that they snaked out onto the sidewalk near his apartment. Then he sang Invisible from his new record, The Low Highway a song about disenfranchised people who don’t feel seen by passersby.
He was backed up by The Mastersons, pictured here, who opened the show and to my delight, talked about how they went to see Wendy Davis filibuster in the Texas state senate! They totally had me already with that, but then their songs were beautiful, well-crafted and moving too.
At one point, Earle got behind the piano and then imagined out loud that everyone must be thinking, “What the hell is Steve doing behind the piano?” Then he explained why – that it was similar to when he used to get drunk and think he could speak Spanish when he lived in Texas. Now, spending so much time in New Orleans, he’s starting to believe he can play the piano. I loved that he fucked up a few times during the ensuing song. Heart, people! Heart! He also appears in the HBO show, Treme, a drama about post-Katrina New Orleans which now I totally want to see.
I’m not even going to talk about the song he played for his 3-year old son who was just diagnosed with autism. Let’s just say I had to get out my trusty roll of toilet paper that I keep in my purse. Tears, people! The only thing that saved me from completely wailing and bawling was the look on Richard’s face when I pulled out a roll of toilet paper from my purse.
Earle spent a while talking about an investment banker friend of his who founded the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. The ‘banjo-picking billionaire’ Warren Hellman not only funded this festival up to nine years after his own death (which was last year), but he was so incensed by the de-funding of public worker pensions in San Francisco that he wrote a check to cover them himself. All of them. Earle concluded this story with a very apt, “It goes to show you, just because you’re rich, doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole.”
Being a good person is definitely on Earle’s priority list, and it felt good just to be around him. Even though he was pointing out left and right what’s wrong with our country, somehow he also made it seem like maybe if we all learned to play mandolin, or the banjo, or electric guitar, the horrible racism and poverty would all disappear.
He reckoned that it hasn’t been since Woody Guthrie’s days that troubadors like himself have seen such rampant poverty and signs of recession/depression. He said it so matter-of-factly it was oddly chilling. And he’s right, of course. It’s not something for sepia-toned by-gone era photographs. That soup kitchen line is long right now, and we do have to get our priorities straight. As Earle said last night (I’m paraphrasing), “We need to start thinking about how to make things better for our own people, and stop thinking about how to pull more black stuff out of the ground.”
Amen, brother. And rock on!