For a band returning from Europe to finish an extended tour, Steve Earle & the Dukes played a rock-n-roll show that was anything but jet-lagged. The three-time Grammy award winner’s first concert in the United States after leaving Paris amid post-ISIL attacks was at famed Tipitina’s Monday evening. Earle waxed “philosophical about death” between narrative songs about the devil and politicians, bad love and redemption, war and great floods. He reminded the crowd that nothing—not murders nor levee breaches—may kill a community’s love and creative spirit.
On this night of eulogies, Earle praised the late Allen Toussaint, sang a paean to B.B. King, and pronounced the Confederate flag dead in the past.
Earle started with two songs, “Baby, Baby, Baby” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now,” from Terraplane (2015), his first thematic blues record, laden with guitar riffs reminiscent of ZZ Top. Eric Rigby’s deep, slow drumbeat and Chris Masterson’s Texas shuffle enhanced the pitch darkness of “Tennessee Kid,” Earle’s poetic rendition of Robert Johnson’s ill-fated crossroads transaction with “Lucifer himself…Satan, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub.” The heavy sound and Biblical language whirled into a Southern gothic narrative like a short sung version of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
A positive outcome of his recent divorce, Earle told his audience, was that (while mostly a “drag,”) the lawyers this seventh time around executed an “inventory process” through which he learned that he’d actually “written a fuck of a lot of songs.” Earle calmed the crowd’s cheers by plucking a somber acoustic tune, “Goodbye,” that he wrote for Emmylou Harris’ album Wrecking Ball, which won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1995.
Drawing from that vast inventory of country, bluegrass, folk, rock, and blues—spanning three decades and 18 records—the 60-year-old Earle played for nearly two-and-a-half hours, rendering himself the only person in attendance not visibly fatigued from rocking across all horizons of contemporary Americana music. Throughout the night he swapped his guitar for a mandolin or harmonica at every switch of song.
In “Copperhead Road,” he evoked Appalachian Scotts-Irish roots with the mandolin in his 1988 classic about John Lee Pettimore, a descendent of moonshiners and a drug-running Vietnam veteran. Three drunk middle-aged oil rig workers, two tall and one wide, shot fists in the air and screamed along with him. These men said nothing when Earle commented on the anthropomorphic causes of global warming, industrial agricultural, and the post-DDT resurgence of the red-tailed hawk population.
Upstairs, the audience leaned over the railing and some sat beneath it watching the musicians onstage through the black chain-link fence. Two women listened from a folding table where they raised money for the Innocence Project New Orleans, distributing bumper stickers and pamphlets promoting the nonprofit’s efforts to free wrongfully convicted prisoners in Louisiana and Mississippi—a total of 26 exonerations in a decade. Earle and Eleanor Whitmore played dual mandolins on his Irish anthem, “Galway Girl,” and Chris Masterson accompanied with the banjo. All rose to swing around the Celtic dance medley.
To start the first of two encores, Earle said that terrorist attacks cannot change Paris, the great city of liberté, égalité, fraternité. He eulogized, in deep sincerity, “the force of nature” that was Allen Toussaint. Recalling their collaboration in 2011 during the filming of Treme that produced “This City,” Earle said: “It’s the best recording that I have ever been involved with.” Two Preservation Hall band members (Ben Jaffe, tuba; Mark Braud, trumpet) joined the Dukes on stage, both men carrying their shining brass horns. The audience swelled with pride as it sang along: “Don’t matter, let come what may/ I ain’t never gonna leave this town/ This city won’t wash away/ This city won’t ever drown.”
Finally, Earle played “Mississippi, It’s Time” and dedicated it to the students at Ole Miss who recently voted to remove the Confederate flag from campus. Earle released this single in September to raise money for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery advocacy group that seeks justice by fighting hate crimes and bigotry through litigation and education. “We’re all Southerners on this stage,” Earle said from behind a 10-inch beard worthy of any Confederate soldier in his bloodline. He prefaced the song with the following:
The Civil War wasn’t fought about state’s rights. I believe it was fought about slavery and the economics at the time…. If you have any doubt that that flag represents racism, have you ever seen a picture of a Ku Klux Klan rally where there wasn’t at least fifty of them. If you ask a person of color whether it’s a symbol of racism, they’ll probably tell you that it is to them and that’s all that fucking matters.
The mostly Southern white crowd answered his sentiment with agreeable uproar, a new generation howling an inherited rebel yell with revived inverse conviction. Steve Earle & the Dukes then blasted into the second encore with “The Revolution Starts… Now,” holding in rapture a crowd already awaiting their return.