Every winter, Steve Earle takes a “break” from touring with The Dukes and performs a solo acoustic residency at City Winery, a gig that started when he moved to New York in 2005 and has since expanded to include stops in the venue’s other locations across the U.S.
The partnership has proven fruitful. City Winery has benefitted from having a proven performer with a dedicated base guaranteed to sell out most shows, while Earle gets to play select dates reasonably close to home during the winter months. The restaurant’s New York location also has been the site of annual fundraisers Earle holds to benefit the special needs school his son attends.
This winter, Earle performed his first residency — one show in January and two in February — at the Washington, D.C., location that opened in April 2018. It marked the fourth time he’s played in the DMV in just the past 12 months, but his first solo outings.
After opener Shannon McNally’s short but strong set, which concluded with a lovely duet on Earle’s Lonely Are the Free, the 64-year-old singer-songwriter took the stage for a two-hour show. Totally comfortable in a solo setting, Earle seemed relaxed and engaged throughout, playing seven different instruments (including harmonica).
Politics, humor and “chick songs” dominated much of Earle’s set as the audience got a mix of the classics — Guitar Town, My Old Friend the Blues, Someday, the inevitable show closer Copperhead Road — as well as an intriguing series of deep cuts, a Guy Clark cover, and a new song that will come out on an album in 2020. As any longtime fan would expect, he also sprinkled caustic, funny and often sobering observations between songs.
Here are some:
- After performing The Devil’s Right Hand: “Most homicides in the home take place in the kitchen unless there’s guns in the house. Then it’s the bedroom. And that’s a fact.”
- Before performing Now She’s Gone: “This goes out to what’s her name, wherever the hell she is.” The next song, the lovely and heartbreaking “Goodbye,” was introduced with “Same girl. Different harmonica.”
- Introducing the “chick song section of the program”: “I grew up in Texas and I didn’t play football so I picked up a guitar. … I started playing my first gigs when I was around 15 years old. I realized Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan scared the f--- out of 14-year-old girls so I learned a lot of Donovan songs.”
After playing “Sparkle and Shine” and “Lonelier Than This,” Earle introduced his 1995 song “Valentine’s Day” as “the flagship of the whole chick song fleet.” The song was accompanied by a sobering story.
“It was February 13, 1995. I was recently back in the world and could not get a license,” Earle said, referring to the drug addiction that threatened his life and career and landed him in prison for four months. “Remarkably, I never had a DUI. I just let my license expire, so I had 13 or 14 charges in three or four states, and it took a while to clean that up. Anyway, I didn’t have a driver but I had a legal pad and a pencil, so I did this.”
Earle wrapped up the section with You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had, then took a sharp turn with South Nashville Blues, a song about scoring drugs that “makes it sound a lot more f---ing fun than it was.” He noted that he’s been sober since September 13, 1994 and introduced CCKMP with “Lest I forget, welcome to my nightmare.”
The final third of the show included the night’s sole cover, Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” The song is part of “Guy,” an album of Clark compositions that Earle will release on March 31, in part because “I do not want to run into that muthaf---er on the other side” after paying tribute to his other mentor, Townes Van Zandt, on 2008’s “Townes.”
Earle then performed a new song, “John Henry is a Steel Driving Man,” a tribute to the 29 West Virginia coal miners who died in Upper Big Branch in 2010. It will be part of the country record he is releasing in 2020.
“I’m not preaching to the choir,” he said of the new record. “I did that, and I believe every word I wrote. In fact, I’m probably more radical now than I was then. But we do have a responsibility to listen to each other, and we’re not doing a good job of that right now. I want to make a record that speaks to people who didn’t vote the same way I did, so I’m swinging for the fences and trying to change hearts and minds. That’s how arrogant I am.”
After two more songs, the sing-along “City of Immigrants” and a lovely “Galway Girl,” Earle finished his set with “Copperhead Road” before returning to encore with “Christmas in Washington.” Introducing that song, his words hit home:
“What’s important, I think, is that people suit up and show up and vote,” he said to cheers from the audience. “But let’s go through it with as much kindness as possible. It’s OK to be angry; it’s not OK to be mean.”
Amen to that.