Outlaw country poet and political pundit Steve Earle received a standing ovation just 10 songs into his sold-out performance at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth on Thursday night.
And those 10 songs were the reason many had come to see the show.
Earle, the first Grammy Award winning national touring act to play the refurbished venue, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his classic album “Copperhead Road.” He opened the night playing the 10-song record from start to finish - with a little commentary and storytelling thrown in for good measure.
“Copperhead Road is a pretty (expletive) political record,” Earle told the audience. “We were all coming to terms with the Vietnam War then … the art community had its “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” movies. I made 'Copperhead Road.'”
Earle and his five-piece band, the Dukes, reproduced the album on stage the way it was recorded in 1988. But the original album tracking - five hard-rocking political songs followed by five tender love ballads - made for an awkward concert flow. For example, the show opened with the record’s title track, one of Earle’s biggest songs, while many fans were still in the lobby.
Dressed in black with a blue bandana around his head, Earle kept the audience engaged with colorful stories about making the record. He said ”Once You Love” was made after he impulsively purchased a new car when his old one failed to start and delayed a songwriting beer run with a friend. He said the beautiful album closer “Nothing But a Child” was a Christmas song written for the Oak Ridge Boys.
While some of the songs felt rushed, especially the still-topical gun parable “The Devil’s Right Hand,” the latest version of the Dukes injected the work with a fresh feel. Chris Masterson’s Rickenbacker guitar sent the ballad “When I’m Blue” soaring into the '60s and his wife, Eleanor Whitmore, took over “Waiting For You” with a powerhouse fiddle line.
Earle followed the Copperhead Road set with three fired-up rockers from his 2017 release, “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw.” The song list then plunged deep into the back catalog. “Guitar Town,” a top 10 country hit from 1986, had people dancing in the back rows. Earle produced a bouzouki for the Irish flavored “Galway Girl,” and “The Week of Living Dangerously” turned into a raucous guitar jam with Earle yelling, “Masterson has lost his mind.”
Nothing was performed from his three Grammy Award winning albums recorded between 2005 and 2013.
Instead, Earle ended the show with a mandolin-fueled bluegrass song, “Dixieland,” the stunning Civil War history ballad “Ben McCulloch,” and another new song, “The Girl on the Mountain,” preceded by a nearly 10-minute talk on the current state of American politics.
Earle said a political album designed to prevent a recurrence of the 2016 presidential election would be out by 2020.
“I’m still writing songs for it,” he said. “I don’t want to be preaching to the choir. We’re at a crucial point in our history and our democracy. I’m going to try and make some songs that speak to and for the people that didn’t vote the way I did. I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Sounds like another classic album.
Mark Nicklawske reviews music and theater for the Duluth News Tribune.