Review: Steve Earle in a good place at PAC3 show in Carbondale
July 5, 2011
CARBONDALE – By happenstance, I’ve been listening a lot lately to Steve Earle’s “Just an American Boy,” a live 2003 disc in support of his “Jerusalem” studio album.
Earle was angry on that tour – angry at the direction of the U.S. government; angry at the notion you had to support war to be regarded as a patriot.
Earle was anything but angry Sunday night, when he visited Carbondale with his touring band, the Dukes (and Duchesses), in support of his new album, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” They played to a full house at Carbondale’s Performing Arts Center at Third Street, or PAC3.
Earle brought his usual passion to the show – they played for 2 1/2 hours. But a sense of calm had replace his anger of eight years ago. During the show, Earle made reference to having a lifetime of second chances. Perhaps his state of contentment comes from performing with his wife, musician Allison Moorer, and traveling on the tour bus with their 14-month-old son.
The band played a first set that several audience members described as tight, meaning the band was very precise, skilled and workmanlike. I thought they seemed too eager to move the show along.
Earle played several songs from his new album. “Gulf of Mexico,” which he introduced as a sea chanty, showcased the Duchesses at their finest – Moorer on backing vocals and Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle. The first set also left the impression that the Dukes – guitarist Chris Masterson, bassist Kelley Looney, a longtime Earle collaborator, and drummer Will Rigby – were all very good at what they do.
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On the second set, the band really shined, only partially because it played a lot of tunes familiar to the crowd. They also played several more tracks from the new album. They just seemed to play the second set with more gusto, less precision and more jams to display their talents.
The second set opened with “Copperhead Road,” probably Earle’s signature song. He followed it with my personal favorite, the Civil War lament “Ben McCullouch.” Moorer ratcheted up the sadness of the song with an extended accordion jam.
Earle often goes beyond performing music by making special introductions to a few songs – telling a funny story or making a political point. He noted that his adopted state of New York is wrestling with rules on fracking in the natural-gas extraction process, an issue the Carbondale crowd was keyed into. His advice to “pay attention” to the activities of people who want to take things out of the ground was well-received. He then launched into “The Mountain,” which details the impacts coal mining can wreak.
After gaining the audience’s full attention with some old favorites, Earle and his band dove back into cuts from the new album, showcasing the gritty “Meet Me in the Alleyway,” the lovely “God is God” and a duet with his wife, “Heaven or Hell.”
Earle was happy to share the spotlight with his mates. He turned the stage over to Moorer for the final songs of the first set. Earle left the stage and slipped into the audience to watch the performance with their young son.
Looney traded his bass for an acoustic guitar and sang one song in the second set. And Whitmore and Masterson took center stage for a song that showcased their immense talents in one of the highlights of the show.
Earle himself changed instruments at a dizzying rate – exchanging acoustic guitars and mandolins nearly every song. He didn’t pick up an electric guitar until halfway through the second set, and later let it sizzle on “The Revolution Starts Now.”
The band played two lengthy encores, one of which included crowd favorite “Hillbilly Highway.”
PAC3 proved to be a worthy venue. The former elementary school’s gym was converted into a performing arts center with a stage and extensive interior treatment to improve the audio. The center holds 365 people when it is set up entirely for seating, and 553 for general-admission standing. Earle sold the place out in a crowd closer to the 553.
Organizers announced before the show that they’re still trying to find the best balance between seating and standing. The arts center was a hybrid of the Wheeler Opera House and a Texas honky tonk for Earle’s show. A couple hundred seats dominated the area in front of the stage; people stood behind and along the sides, and a bar off to one side was always stacked with customers. Sometimes the standing crowd partied too hard during Earle’s quieter moments, but the self-policing audience got them to tone it down.
It’s a venue with a ton of potential. Count on Carbondale to find the right balance.