We arrive at Perth Concert Hall a little weary after our journey home from Slovenia the previous evening had been prolonged by not one, but two delayed flights. While we were away, my girlfriend Jo took me along to see her favourite band Iron Maiden in Zagreb. It was a crushed, hot, and sweaty affair, and frankly, I’m looking forward to something less intense but hopefully equally exhilarating.
I had previously seen tonight’s headliner Steve Earle at Southern Fried in 2014 when he was supported by the amazing Sturgill Simpson. At that gig, he delivered an intimate set of songs from his whole career, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and occasionally his mandolin. After seeing the breadth and depth of songwriting that Earle had to offer I went on a bit of a cd buying spree and familiarised himself with his extensive back-catalogue.
When it was announced that he would be headlining the opening night of this year’s Southern Night with his backing band The Dukes, I was delighted. Earle has been playing with this accomplished group of musicians since his debut in 1982 and it was with them that he recorded his latest album “So You Wannabe an Outlaw”. This amazing 2017 release is a rousing tribute to the pioneering heroes of rebel country and was hailed by critics as a return to form. Personally, I think that is ridiculous as Mr Earle never lost form, you just have to listen to “So You Wannabe an Outlaw’s” predecessor Terraplane to hear that.
The Dukes hit the stage and launch straight into their first song. To the left of the stage on violin and electric guitar are Eleanor Whitmore and Christopher Masterson. As husband and wife duo The Mastersons they had just played a stellar support slot whose highlights included "Birds Fly South" and the wryly funny "Don't Tell Me To Smile". As well as being great songwriters, they can also play the hell out of their respective instruments and their harmonies are exquisite. It was great to see that they would be part of the band.
The first half of the show features six straight songs from the latest album, which is totally fine with this Steve Earle fan! The opener, "So You Wannabe an Outlaw" is a gritty but fun slice of outlaw country that you could quite easily imagine Waylon Jennings singing. My favourite song from the new album is "Walking in L.A." which is the third song played tonight and by this stage, The Duke's are really hitting their stride. The momentum continues into "Sunset Highway" which features some really pretty slide playing from Ricky Ray Jackson.
Much as I'm enjoying the new stuff, I have to admit it felt really good to hear the opening chords of "My Old Friend The Blues". Along with Bonnie Prince Billy's "I See A Darkness," it's one of the most honest and touching songs about depression you are ever likely to hear. Tonight's arrangement is absolutely mesmerising, initially The Dukes hold back allowing Steve's fingerpicking and spine-tingling vocal space to work their magic. As the song builds the band join in, never overplaying, to create what is (at least to my ears) an arrangement even better than the recorded version.
The Dukes really get let off the leash with the anthemic "Guitar Town", one of Earle's early breakthrough singles. Masterson's twangy lead guitar and a muscular rhythm section make for a powerful listening experience. "You're The Best Lover That I Ever Had", opens with a catchy bluesy guitar line that is reminiscent of Lightning Hopkins "Smokestack Lightning". Earle vamps on acoustic guitar and the band provide an airy, swampy accompaniment that lends a really groovy vibe to the song.
Later in the set, Earle breaks out the mandolin for a few songs including the obligatory "Copperhead Road". I've never seen Steve play this live with a full band and it's really exciting stuff. Whitmore's violin part blends so well with the mandolin and fuzzy guitars and I'm really impressed with bassist Kelly Looney's bass and backing vocals. He's been playing his ass off all night but on this and "Taneytown" he brings so much energy to the mix.
The set ends with a huge sounding version of "Hey Joe", featuring some really stellar lead work from Chris Masterson. The guys are soon back for an encore that includes "Dixieland" and "Ben McCullough". Between songs, Earle unveils his plans for the next couple of years. They include a tribute album for the recently deceased Guy Clark, a rebel country singer who was a bit of a mentor to Earle and tomorrow's headliner Rodney Crowell. I can't wait.
If you like Colin's reviews then why not check out his Southern Fried themed Small City Podcast. You can stream and download it here!
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