On a wintry Saturday night in February, the blowing snow made the trip down to Hudson, NY that much more thrilling, and made the audience that much more thankful that Steve Earle decided to make the trip up to Hudson to perform in the intimate concert space at Club Helsinki. The club has a very Greenwich Village sort of feel to it, with funky decorations including a red lamp with a stuffed crow sitting on top. Starting off the evening early with a delightful meal of southern cooking, which included deep-fried cauliflower, cheesy grits, and sweet potato pie to top it all off, the crowd had their stomachs filled as the show officially began.
If you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t know the show had begun! Steve Earle nonchalantly strolled onto the stage and started right in with the title track off one of his more recent albums, The Low Highway. This song had a pure twangy sound to it, as did his next several tunes, which included “My Old Friend the Blues” off one of his earlier albums. After about his fourth song, he started in with his famous and much enjoyed storytelling, his first story being a timely Valentine’s Day story about how he had just gotten out of jail in February of 1995, and didn’t have a license, so since he couldn’t drive into town to buy flowers, he wrote his significant other a song as a gift instead. Judging by the lyrics of the song following that story, “Valentine’s Day”, he had a lot to apologize for, but it’s nothing having someone write a song for you can’t fix! The harmonica came out at this point in the show, and Steve folked-out to “Taneytown”, which had a very Patti Smith-like sound to it. His next several tunes sounded very heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, with a hint of Simon and Garfunkel mixed in for good measure.
Paying tribute to the late great Pete Seeger, Steve told an endearing story about a festival he had the pleasure of performing at with Pete, then slipped into a tune he had written years ago honoring Pete called “Steve’s Hammer (for Pete)”, a lovely sing-along which had everyone in the audience singing out, many of them singing through their tears. Changing the mood drastically, he then went into “Angel is the Devil”, which although melodically it sounds upbeat and light, the lyrics are much darker than one would expect from purely listening to the melody.
At this point in the show, Steve switched over to his current favorite instrument, a mandolin designed by Australian luthier Steve Gilchrist, who was granted the esteemed title of “best mandolin maker in the world” by none other than Steve Earle himself! It did produce a pretty amazing sound, which was showcased in one of Earle’s more famous tunes “Galway Girl”, a song with a tricky rhythm that lends itself well to the mandolin. Before putting that mandolin back into its case, Steve gave it a kiss! He then brought out an octave mandolin, or a “bouzouki”. (He jokingly advised that whenever traveling with a bouzouki, you should refer to it as an octave mandolin while going through airport security, since “bouzouki” sounds kind of suspicious…) Throwing in another quick story highlighting his love of New York City, namely that he loves being able to fully experience neighborhood delis/bodegas, he dedicated his next song “City of Immigrants” to Mr. Kim, who runs his local deli.
Steve got serious with a story about his 3 ½-year old son who was diagnosed with autism, and urged everyone to pressure the powers-that-be to figure out how to cure autism, rather than focusing on how to extract “black stuff from the ground”. That definitely hit a nerve with the crowd at this show, as hydrofracking is a contentious issue in our neck of the woods here in Upstate New York. His next song “Remember Me” was incredibly moving, and once again brought tears to some people’s eyes.
Continuing with songs and stories covering issues from the Third Crusade/the Israel-Palestine conflict (“Jerusalem”), to gun control (“Devil’s Right Hand”), Earle ended his two-hour set with “Copperhead Road”, employing an interesting mix of up- and down-strokes, jamming out on a typically simple rhythm. Stepping off-stage for just a moment, Earle came out to sing a song off his upcoming blues album, and ended with an older, better known tune, “Guitar Town”. After finishing up his second encore, Earle took a brief break to eat some dinner backstage, but promised to come out when he finished so he could chat with the audience and sign CDs. All in all, Steve Earle’s unique performance style encompassing a mix of singing and storytelling, in combination with the intimate setting of Club Helsinki, the evening turned out to be a very musically and politically inspirational. Steve Earle is definitely worth checking out if he comes to your town.