Live at Chicago's Riviera Theatre, February 23rd
Steve Earle & The Dukes
Reviewed by Micah Holmquist>
Monday, March 26 2001, 2:17 PM
Steve Earle concerts are an interesting phenomenon.
The crowd was virtually all white at his February 23rd show at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, Illinois but beyond that it was a pretty eclectic. There were aging hippies and yuppies displaying no shame in their status. There were roughnecks who looked like they had just come in from the farm. Most were slumming, a few probably weren't. There was more than a few thirtysomething single gender groups on a "boys/girls night out." There were alternakids who took special delight when Earle covered a Nirvana song. Before the concert started, one guy in his early 20s was reading the latest issue of Z Magazine. I spent most of the show standing next to a guy wearing a cowboy hat and a t-shirt implying that cowboys were into S&M. He cheered wildly and raised his hand -- index finger outstretched -- whenever the lyrics had anything to do with violence. Some members the audience didn't share his enthusiasm and carried on incessant conversations during the performance. Others sang every word.
A crowd like this is probably to be expected from a performer like Earle who rose to fame in the mid-1980s with hits on country radio but who has since delved into bluegrass, folk, and hard rock. Along the way he has battled drug addiction, been incarcerated, and created a body of work that reflects the personal troubles of his life as well as his working class background.
The Chicago show would be a rocker. There would be a few ballads like "Goodbye," and Earle's anti-death penalty song "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)." However, the concert consisted mostly of fierce versions of cuts celebrating those who were "born on the other side of town." Such content is often a recipe for cliche, but not with Earle who affixes realistic details to the lives of his characters. His classic song "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" opens with the lines "I was born by the railroad tracks/Well the train whistle wailed and I wailed right back," but by the end makes it clear that there is a dark side to this rambling spirit and all is not be celebrated. The combination of realism and romanticism allows the audience to feel like it is part of a great tradition of bohemians and wanderers.
Even the songs that detail Earle's addictions and the problems that they caused avoid being preachy or trite. The message of "Tanscendental Blues," the opener of this concert and both the first and the title cut of Earle's most recent release, is quite clearly that even after successfully going through hell that there are still no easy answers, that life is never "won." It always has to be pursued. Such a dose of honesty is rarely heard in popular entertainment and it is its inclusion that draws audiences to Earle.