Monday, August 10, 2015

Steve Earle & the Dukes Give Madison the Blues: Live at the Barrymore Theater, Madison, WI August 8, 2015

"Well did you ever wake up with that one woman on your mind? Sit there laughing, laughing just to keep from crying? "   William Harris knew it.  Steve Earle knew it more times than he would probably care to remember (6 to be precise, but hey, whose counting?)

Elmore James knew it too: "...ahh, you cats with your Madison shoes we do this thing we call the Madison Blues we do the Madison Blues ...we do the Madison Blues baby rock away your blues".

Returning to one of his "favorite places to play", the Barrymore Theater in Madison. WI, a jovial and truly inspired Steve Earle turned a night dedicated to the blues into a joyous occasion that will be forever cherished by all those in attendance.  No, Mr. Earle and company did not play the William Harris song popularized by Canned Heat/Gallagher/Thackery and a songwriter as gifted as Steve doesnt need to stoop to something as hackneyed as playing the great Elmore James song In a city named Madison, leave that to the amateur music critics. 

What America’s most interesting songwriter and his crack band consisting of long time rhythm section of Kelly Looney on upright and electric bass, Will Rigby on drums and the incredibly talented husband and wife duo of Eleanor Whitmore on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, violin and keyboards and the country’s most versatile, tasteful, ensemble or lead playing guitar genius, Chris Masterson on vocals, acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars (aka the Mastersons) did do was over 3 hours (including the Mastersons shimmering beautiful opening set) of blues music showcasing Earle’s mastery of the genre from all periods of his career. 

Along the way a down right chatty Mr. Earle took the time to put his songs into context whether reminding audience members that this was not his first foray into the blues before playing an old chestnut like “My Old Friend the Blues” or how he knew exactly where he was when he wrote the next song because it was the first song he wrote sober.  There was acknowledgement of his recent divorce which served as the inspiration for doing a “blues” album but it was never mean or bitter just brutally honest, which is the hallmark of any songwriter who is worth a damn.
Of course he had to throw the obligatory Copperhead bone but for a change he did it fairly early in the show thus setting up the reference to that part of his fan base stuck in the past and the punch line, “this next one is for those of you who need to get home early because you’re on probation or electric home monitoring,  the rest of you stick around because we have a lot more to do”.

Another highlight for me was the ferocious version of the Chester Burnett classic “44 Blues” that had Steve channeling the Wolf both on vocals and with some nasty harmonica and Mr. Masterson playing slide like the great Lowell George.  Always the respectful one, Steve paid tribute to the late King of the Blues, B.B. before sequing into a rip snorting electric blues finale including a refreshing and interesting version of “Hey Joe” thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Masterson.  The encores were broken up with a beautiful instrumental that a fellow concert goer and the one kind enough to let me take a picture of the official set list, said was a Donovan cover which got me thinking if it was the same Donovan number referred to in the Mother Jones interview that got him kicked out of his first blues band at the age of 13?  

The crowd just wouldn’t let the band leave summoning them back for more.  This time we got a real treat, a brand new protest song that they played only for the second time and one they planned to release as a single this week:  Mississippi Take It Down.  Again proving why he is the best songwriter out there it is a great song telling the Governor and people of Mississippi that it is time to retire the Confederate Stars and Bars as part of their state flag.  In light of the debate set for this week in the Mississippi legislature, this one is sure to garner attention and sales.  Next up was the soon to be election year call to arms, the “Revolution Starts Now” before ending with the Troggs “Wild Thing” that had Will Rigby using 2 sticks in one hand bashing out the cymbals like Nick the Bruiser.
Donovan song?Mississippi Take It Down
Down the Road I go
The Revolution Starts Now
Wild Thing

This is the second time that my son and I have made what now can only be described as a pilgrimage from Minneapolis to Madison to see Steve & the Dukes with the Mastersons at the charmingly friendly and funky Barrymore Theater.  Because we had  been listening to Terraplane since it came out and read Steve’s published interviews including the excellent Steve Earle interview in Mother Jones (April 2015) by Jacob Blickenstaff  we knew this tour, like the album, was going to be about the blues.  The running joke this trip was “we were on a mission from God”.   

On our first trip almost two years ago to the day, we fell in love with Madison, a progressive jewel of a city in a state that, sadly, remains under the control of a failed regime and its despotic ruler.  While Wisconsin's weak chinned look-a-like to Syria's Assad hasn't resorted to dropping barrel bombs on his own citizens (at least not yet) he has fired off defamatory missives in Trump like fashion; most infamously equating his states hard working and underpaid public sector employees to Isis fighters.  Like Steve and the Dukes we share an admiration and respect for the oppressed working class citizens of Madison and the State of Wisconsin.  As anyone who read my review of the 2013 show knows, that show was held in such high regard, we thought it would be almost impossible to match so we had prepared ourselves for a letdown.  Little did we know that Steve and the Dukes had other plans.

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