Steve Earle returned to his roots as a troubadour with a three-night series of solo concerts at City Winery NY. In connection with the songs he selected on the second night, he also revealed a fair amount of his life struggles that inspired his musical journey. Revelations about Earle the person helped the listener more deeply appreciate Earle the honest songwriter.
Earle is a southerner, born in Virginia and raised in Texas. He started playing guitar at age 11 and rather than immersing himself in pop music, he was enchanted by the melancholy and poetic music of Townes Van Zandt. Facing a possible military draft and assignment to the conflict in Viet Nam in his late teens, Earle became politicized. All of this was apparent in his solo performance, as he played hardcore roots music and identified himself as a left-leaning ideologist who relocated to New York City 16 years ago in order to live freely, for instance, alongside “same-sex, mixed-race” couples.
Earle played acoustic and electric guitar on most songs, and briefly also played banjo, mandolin and an eight-string bouzouki-like instrument. Whether finger-picking or strumming, his songs rang with a sense of ancestry and gravity, drawing inspiration from vintage acoustic blues, mountain music, and traditional folk structures. His voice was particularly gravelly, which he attributed to seasonal allergies, and this effect accentuated the power of his soulful delivery. Midway through his nearly two-hour set, he performed his songs from Coal Country, an off-Broadway musical about a 2010 coal-mining disaster in West Virginia. The most somber moment, however, occurred when he spoke of the 2020 passing of his son, Justin Townes Earle, a death the family believes was induced by fentanyl cut into the cocaine the younger Earle took.
Earle’s larger concerts are usually performed with a rocking band, the Dukes, but in this more intimate setting, where current state restrictions permit only 100 patrons in a large room that can hold 400, the solo concert was more intimate. Played without accompaniment, the music held up well and resonated with more integrity. A fan might be eager to hear Earle accompanied by ripping guitar leads and pounding drums, but this solo performance was a refreshing revisit to Earle’s musical catalogue.