Steve Earle is a country music artist, mostly. You might not know that, just from looking around at modern country music, which is essentially pop with a southern twang, real or disingenuous.
But Earle is a direct conduit to the country music that emanated from Texas at the end of the 1960s. That was a music that blended folk, rock, and old-school country, and its mainstays – Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark among them – were direct, visceral influences on Earle, whose mid-1980s album “Guitar Town” has been widely praised as the birth of the alt-country movement.
As Earle and his Dukes (and Duchesses) took the stage of the Bear’s Den in Seneca Niagara Casino on Saturday, an awful lot of history hung in the air. Earle is, after all, the bedrock of modern country music for those who value the form as a legitimate idiom within American roots music, rather than an offshoot of contemporary pop.
With the newly released “The Low Road” in his hip pocket, and plenty of music from his involvement with the artistically and commercially successful “Treme” also in the arsenal, Earle was clearly loaded for bear. On Saturday, he hit the target, every time.
With Earle’s wife, the songwriter, singer, and instrumentalist Allison Moorer, at home with the couple’s children, this abbreviated version of the band afforded additional room for fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore to strut her stuff. She became Earle’s foil onstage, and the results were thrilling. An early-in-the-set version of “Calico County” brought Earle and the band’s gritty Stones-like take on country into the ring with Whitmore’s fiddle. Sparks flew. The brilliant “Tanneytown” painted a portrait of a hard-luck man succumbing to temptation, and again, Whitmore aided the Dukes in their attainment of roots rock nirvana.
Earle seemed to be shifting the set list as he went along, favoring songs that were written during the time he lived in New Orleans while working on “Treme.” A sultry, swampy feel pervaded, as Earle moved between electric, various acoustic – banjo, and mandolin – and the rootsiness of it all, within the intimate confines of the Bear’s Den, made the performance feel private, special, maybe even unique. It did feel like Earle was singing to each of us, individually.
“I Thought You Should Know” displayed Earle’s reverence for the best ’50s songwriting, Roy Orbison by way of Hank Williams, if you will.
“Love’s Gonna Blow My Way,” from “The Low Highway,” offered up Earle’s version of bluegrass, which is essentially folk with chops, many of them provided by guitarist Chris Masterson, who was astounding throughout. “Burnin’ It Down” gave us Earle’s spit-take on rock-country, and also allowed the singer to take a shot at Walmart. (The song, like all of the songs on his latest album, offers a perspective from the have-nots, those most hard-hit by the current economic collapse, and the ones that preceded it.)
After late-in-the-show takes on the Celtic-flavored “Galway Girl” and the Bush-bashing “Little Emperor,” Earle emerged for an encore of “Remember Me,” a song he wrote for his son, John Henry, who was recently diagnosed with autism. This song was particularly moving, its melancholy melody – vaguely Irish, and wholly beautiful – holding the crowd in rapt silence, as Earle uttered words of transcendental love.
Anyone with a child felt this, and deeply.
It was a fitting conclusion to a fantastic show. And it was also a reminder of exactly what country music is supposed to do for us. Earle keeps doing it. Everyone else needs to catch up.