Huddled around a single broadcast radio microphone, Steve Earle and his Bluegrass Dukes beckoned a bygone era when the performers shared a common ground with their listeners who had come in from the farms and factories to hear one of their own perform.
Bluegrass has, more than virtually any other American genre, held tight to its beginnings and ethics and while Earle brings a modern realism to the stories in his songs, the music and style of delivery feel rooted and secure.
Earle’s return to the recording fold in 1995 after his much-publicized run-ins with the law and heroin was, in fact, in a bluegrass setting for the tiny Winter Harvest label. He has since won over critics and skeptics with two strong albums, “I Feel Alright” and “El Corazon,” before returning to the Appalachia style invented by Bill Monroe for his latest disc, “The Mountain.”
The title track of the most recent album was presented as a centerpiece of the first half of Earle’s show Tuesday, paired with “Harlan Man,” two songs written from the perspective of the same man — one young and headstrong, the other older and wiser. In “Harlan Man” he speaks of belonging — to a town, to a family, to a union, to a way of life — whereas “The Mountain” is a reflection on a miner’s life, a reflection on the values and secrets that are destroyed by progress and technology.
As Earle said, it wasn’t a great way of life, but it sure beat the alternative. He succeeds in reveling in memory without delving into revision — his refreshing honesty goes hand in hand with the bare-boned, earthy accompaniment of banjo, mandolin, fiddle and standup bass.
After performing for the first 45 minutes in the first half of the two-set evening, mandolinist Tim O’Brien took over with a rousing set of material that showcased each instrumentalist. Under the leadership of Earle and O’Brien, the band mixed in drinking songs, Irish fiddle tunes and high-lonesome harmony singing, as well as spectacular command of instruments, that made this particular evening a full overview of the breadth of bluegrass.