Legendary songwriter Steve Earle delivered waves of roadhouse-worthy country and blues — as well as a series of thoughtful reflections on love, sobriety and songwriting — Tuesday at The Knitting Factory in downtown Reno.
Earle has been on the road since February promoting his latest album “Terraplane,” which he recorded alongside his band the Dukes last year.
“This may be my first blues album,” Earle told the crowd, “but these aren’t my first blues songs.” Material from” Terraplane” was the focus of his set and highlights included “Tennessee Kid” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now.”
His passion for the blues was evident as he spoke of fellow Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ability to make “one guitar sound like an orchestra.” Earle elaborated on his own career and the life lessons he’s learned throughout it. His ability to engage the audience between songs was a testament to his prowess as a storyteller.
When talking about his recent divorce — his seventh — he said, “There’s no such thing as a good divorce, it’s always terrible for both people, but at least the songs are mine to keep. No one can take that away.”
He also seemed to joke about his own career after playing his 1988 hit “Copperhead Road”, saying, with a hint of resentment, “alright, now we can move onto the adult portion of the show”
He spoke briefly of his sobriety before performing “Goodbye” from 1995’s “Train A Comin’.”
“I’ve written a fuck load of songs,” he said, “but I can remember writing this one so clearly because it was the first thing I wrote when I got sober.” He’s been clean for almost 20 years. Talking points like these painted Steve Earle and the Dukes as a bar band with a message, and Earle’s outlook on the way music has intertwined with his life is worth the cost of the ticket.
The Dukes included new additions Chris Masterson on guitar and his wife Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, mandolin, and tenor guitar. (The couple opened the show as the acoustic duo the Mastersons.), as well as longtime members Will Rigby on drums and Kelley Looney on bass.
What the band lacked in tightness, it more than made up for in passion. Like a less garagey Crazy Horse, the Dukes turned The Knitting Factory from Reno concert hall to a small town honky-tonk. Masterson’s guitar playing was, well, masterful and Whitmore’s ability to switch between instruments and pepper songs with backing vocals added a welcome dynamic to the rock and country outfit.
The Tuesday night crowd felt like anything but. Earle’s fanbase is not just fiercely loyal but a refreshing throwback to a simpler time. This was the kind of crowd that waves actual lighters — instead of cellphones — during slow songs and says “bitchin’ ” without even a hint of irony.
The band closed its set with a stirring take on the rock classic “Hey Joe” before returning to the stage for the three encores. The most notable encore was a new political tune called “Mississippi, It’s Time.” Earle’s first-ever digital single, which will be released on Sept. 11, deals with state’s antiquated attachment to the confederate flag.
At the base of Steve Earle & The Dukes’ appeal is its ability to combine good old-fashioned American music, progressive ideals and absolute honesty. Tuesday’s showing made it clear that these facets of his performance are not just intact but stronger than ever. Steve Earle’s performance was genuine to its core.