Review: ‘Steve Earle and the Dukes’

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in America. Perhaps it was true for Fitzgerald, who never quite recovered from his early fame and spent the remainder of his life finding new ways to dissipate his talents. Steve Earle also knows from wasting his talents, but he's proved Fitzgerald wrong, having a second act that is, if anything, even stronger than his first. Since returning from heroin addiction and jail, Earle's career has been marked by the joyous freedom of a man who just doesn't give a damn. He's happy just to have the chance to play music again.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in America. Perhaps it was true for Fitzgerald, who never quite recovered from his early fame and spent the remainder of his life finding new ways to dissipate his talents. Steve Earle also knows from wasting his talents, but he’s proved Fitzgerald wrong, having a second act that is, if anything, even stronger than his first. Since returning from heroin addiction and jail, Earle’s career has been marked by the joyous freedom of a man who just doesn’t give a damn. He’s happy just to have the chance to play music again.

It’s a freedom that has allowed Earle to recast the Dukes as his Crazy Horse. They were a raucous garage band whose bracing onslaught of guitars and pop hooks is as far from the bluegrass that characterized his previous House of Blues appearance as imaginable.

Earle is often compared to Bruce Springsteen, and there are superficial similarities — the gruff vocals and stentorian melodies–but their differences are just as pronounced. But where Springsteen’s apostolic R&B summons the salt-air snap of the Jersey Shore, Earle’s music is imbued with the Texas dust of roadhouses and honky-tonks.

Bashing through their marathon two-and-a-half-hour show, Earle and Dukes evoked the eclecticism of ’60s Top 40 radio.

“Devil’s Right Hand” has the jangly folk rock of the Byrds and Bob Dylan. “The Boy Who Never Cried” was turned into a raga-tinged ballad. “Everyone’s In Love With You” could have been a British Invasion hit, and “The Devil’s Right Hand” and “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” became boisterous singalongs.

This edition of the Dukes was perfectly cast to play this music. Guitarist Eric Ambel provided colorful accents, from angular constructions, aggressive riffing or whining, long-limbed Neil Young-style solos.

Will Rigby’s drumming was crisply efficient, driving the poppier songs forward, but he was equally adept at providing the thunder on rockers such as “Copperhead Road.”

Their rough-hewn performance, more concerned with feel than precision, reinforced the sense of unvarnished honesty in Earle’s songs.

The band showed its mettle in the encores, which consisted mostly of covers: Nirvana’s “Breed,” the Bottle Rockets’ “I’ll Be Coming Around,” the Chambers Brothers “Time (Has Come Today)” with guest vocals from Sheryl Crow, and the Beatles’ “No Reply.”

It’s a range that might have been surprising, but one that made absolute sense in the context of this nearly flawless show.

Steve Earle and the Dukes

House of Blues; 1,000 capacity; $25 top

Production

Presented inhouse. Reviewed Aug. 5, 2000.

Cast

Band: Steve Earle, Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, Will Rigby, Kerry Lonney.
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