Jagger kept the same haircut: Steve Earle held on to his voice

Steve Earle

Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses, Royal Festival Hall, London, May 21 2013:

Big, balding and bearded like an Old Testament prophet, Steve Earle looks nothing like the skinny black-haired youth who stared out of the cover of his debut Guitar Town album in 1986.

At 58 he has the face and his frame of a man whose past drink and drug problems landed him in jail, and the restless spirit of one who got married seven times (twice to the same woman).

But while the McCartneys and Jaggers of this world have stayed skinny and contrived to grow old under the same haircut, Earle has retained something much more important… his voice.

His singing voice may be a harsh Texan rasp at first hearing but, believe me, it’s a powerful instrument that can express everything from wild aggression to tender romance.

And his voice as a songwriter is more focused and powerful than ever on his excellent new album The Low Highway .

With a tight four-piece band (the Dukes and Duchesses) who cover every base from hard rock to swinging bluegrass, this two-hour live show was a thrilling display from a musical giant.

Steve Earle

They played the whole of The Low Highway, not as one piece but broken up by a brace of early favourites including Guitar Town, Some Day and My Old Friend The Blues, plus some semi-forgotten mid-period delights.

His current band – “the best I’ve ever stood in front of” said Steve, twice – gave a new lease of life to Taneytown (El Corazon, 1997), Hard Core Troubador (I Feel Alright, 1996) and Ben McCullough (Train A Comin’ , 1995).

This was the show diehard fans had always dreamed of, and the ecstatic Festival Hall crowd brought the band back for two sets of encores. These included the night’s only cover version, which Steve introduced as the first song he ever learned to play.

“It’s hillbilly music, but from this side of the pond,” he added. “From this side of theriver actually,”

The band then launched into a raucous bluegrass version of Mother’s Little Helper by the Rolling Stones.

As a musician, actor, author and political activist, there’s nobody quite like Steve Earle, yet he’s criminally unknown over here. Even people with an interest in music sometimes say “Who?”

So if you’ve stumbled on this review by accident and have never heard his music, go and give it a shot on YouTube or Spotify.

The support act was The Mastersons, a duo who are also members of Steve’s band. Virtuoso guitarist Chris Masterson and his multi-instrumental wife Eleanor Whitmore sang close harmony pop-tinged numbers that made a pleasant introduction to the night’s main course.

And they joined the boss in the foyer afterwards to sign stuff for fans and chat at length for close to two hours after the show. Really nice people, on top of everything else.