Steve Earle & the Dukes in Columbus

Kristopher Weiss on June 21, 2018

“And that, folks, is Copperhead Road,” Steve Earle said after he and the Dukes played his third LP top to bottom in celebration of its 30th anniversary.

The comment served not only as a mid-set demarcation line for the two-hour concert before a couple of hundred fans inside Columbus’ Newport Music Hall on June 10, it also served as the only acceptable excuse for the otherwise-unforgivable sin of playing a Christmas song – the LP-closing “Nothing But a Child” – in the dead heat of summer.

Getting to that point was an exercise in stylistic and thematic shifts as Earle and Company played with a sharp edge on Side One’s Vietnam-inspired tracks such as “Back to the Wall” and “The Devil’s Right Hand” before moving into Byrdsian folk-rock (“Even When I’m Blue”) and Bo Diddley beats (“You Belong to Me”) on Side Two, the love-song side, of the 1988 album.

The grimy Newport and its unadorned stage suited Earle and the Dukes’ music to a T. Though it was gritty, the music was also eclectic as Earle, who accompanied himself on acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and harmonica, surrounded himself with a crew of equally adept multi-instrumentalists including Chris Masterson (acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin), Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, tenor guitar, mandolin, keys), Ricky Ray Jackson (pedal steel, electric guitar, accordion, keys) Kelly Looney (electric and double bass) and powerhouse drummer Brad Pemberton, who put on a clinic from the opening “Copperhead Road” to the powerhouse, main-set closing rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s arrangement of Love’s “Hey Joe.”

Masterson and Whitmore – as the Mastersons – opened with a 30-minute set of originals delivered in sparse, acoustic arrangements. It was a pleasant, low-key performance that didn’t begin to hint at the power the husband-and-wife duo bring to the full-band setting of the Dukes.

A generous bandleader, Earle gave each Duke an opportunity to shine with Whitmore ably reprising Iris DeMent’s vocal parts on “I’m Still in Love with You,” Masterson taking solo after stylistically diverse solo on a half-dozen different axes and Jackson adding occasional leads and colorful fills to virtually all the 24 songs that were played.

Dressed in black with blue bandanas tied around his head and wrist, Earle is like an outlaw version of Bruce Springsteen, singing everyman songs with a left-wing political bent that’s sometimes so subtle, people will miss it if they’re not playing close attention. Also like Springsteen, Earle finds himself in the midst of a late-career renaissance, as a triad of fire-breathing tracks from 2017’s So You Wannabe an Outlaw were among the highlights of a career-spanning set.

At 63, Earle has no plans to slow down. He told the crowd he and the Dukes will record an album of Guy Clark covers between his upcoming LSD tour with Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam and more Copperhead shows in the fall. And, there’ll be album of original political songs on the shelves in time for the 2020 election.

Earle the performer is an entirely different animal than Earle the recording artist. It’s possible to enjoy both. But it’s nearly impossible to not to be utterly enthralled with the latter.