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Music Review Singing it like it is

Steve Earle and The Dukes
Barbican Hall
Silk Street
London EC2
★★★★★

At 63 Steve Earle is still an irresistible force of nature and at the Barbican hits the stage running, assisted by the intuitively symbiotic Dukes, at this last assignment this side of the pond.
 
Looking like a Herculean Hell’s Angel, Earle’s gruff, craggy voice is tonight melodious and expressive — forceful and explosive one minute and tender and mellow the next. Although Waylon Jennings is his declared influence, and the similarities are many, Earl’s been able to breathe new life into the largely diminished legacy of progressive country music that ended with the Highwaymen.
 
Much of it stems from his passionate embrace of the vigour and uptempos of rock with blazing guitar work from himself and Chris Masterson anchored masterfully by bassist extraordinaire Kelly Looney and intelligent drumming from Brad Pemberton, while Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and Ricky Jay Jackson on pedal steel guitar put in the engrossing subtle colouring phrases that cement impressively this “wall of sound.”

 
It is, however, Earle’s novelesque lyrics that are the essence of his conversation with the audience. Often painfully raw, confessionary elsewhere, honest in every observation, they make him trustworthy — a man of his word who wears his heart on his sleeve.
 
The unexpected nostalgic rendition of Johnny Come Lately — first recorded with the Pogues in north London in 1988 — elicits loud cheers as will later a meaty and dense Earlesque Hey Joe unexpectedly concluding that he Earle needs to go “way down south, way down Mexico way … before that asshole builds his wall.”

In between take your pick from I Ain’t Ever Satisfied, I’m Still in Love with You, You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had, News From Colorado, Walkin’ in LA, Sunset Highway, Goodbye Michelangelo — a tribute to Guy Clark — Fixin’ to Die or The Firebreak Line, movingly dedicated to the four firefighters killed so far in California’s continuing wild fires.

The energy emanating from the set is infectious as Earle dispenses with small talk and song follows song before there is any time for appreciative whistling, applause or shouting.

Finally, the band leave him alone on stage where, while strumming his acoustic guitar, he shares political comments and lets all in on his plan to write and record his next album aimed at Trump supporters not his opponents.
 
He sees Trump voters as people like him, with whom he wants to start a respectful political dialogue. Not invective but conversation.

Earle affirms he’s a “hard core socialist” and believes his “involvement in politics is about the way the world should be, not the way the world is.” His dialectical approach makes him into a natural and potentially effective political agitator — one with a massive audience already.
 
Upon returning to the States Earle will be joining, later this year, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Lila Downs and Graham Nash on the Lantern Tour “to stand with families seeking safety at our [US] border.” The proceeds of the tour will go to the Women's Refugee Commission.

He departed to a fully deserved standing ovation.

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