You could feel the anticipation in the air as the crowd waited for Steve Earle to take the stage at Asbury Lanes, July 23. After he did, he wasted no time in launching into songs from his magnificent tribute to singer-songwriter Guy Clark: Guy, an album he created and released in honor of his mentor and friend, who died in 2016. Earle is currently on tour with his band The Dukes in support of the March release
He performed “Dublin Blues,” “Texas 1947,” “Rita Ballou” and “Heartbroke” and regaled us with stories about Clark. He started with the short time he spent on the road with Clark as his bass player — until Clark discovered that he himself was the better bassist and Earle was excused to leave and continue building his own songwriting career.
“Guy was my teacher and he was a tough motherfucker, but then he died,” said Earle, with a visible tinge of sadness, before he launched into another story — involving Clark, Earle’s mother and barbeque — that had everyone laughing. You really had to be there, but it was the first time I’ve ever heard the phrase “geography over priority,” and I suspect there is a song in there somewhere.
By the time he got to Clark’s best-known song, “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” the crowd was transformed into a choir singing back the refrain to him, with all its heart. Then Earle’s master storytelling turned to another singer-songwriter, Townes Van Zandt — for whom his son, Justin Townes Earle, is named — and he managed to bring Clark and Van Zandt together by telling us about one of the saddest and proudest times in his life.
Earle belonged to a songwriting group in which songwriters shared their latest songs. While the other songwriters shared whatever songs they wanted, Earle could only share songs suggested by Clark. After his close friend Van Zandt died in 1997, Earle said, “We buried him and I set off on a solo tour — headed over to Croatia and ended up in Ireland.” In Ireland, he wrote “Fort Worth Blues,” which went on to be recorded by Clark on his 1999 Cold Dog Soup album — one of Earle’s proudest moments.
A little later, after performing the title tracks from his albums I Feel Alright (1996) and Guitar Town (1986), Earle launched into a ground-shaking, roof-lifting rendition of “Copperhead Road” that was simply unforgettable. The Dukes were so tight and the drum riffs so powerful that it was truly a highlight of the night.
At this point, Earle introduced us to the band members, all fantastic multi-instrumentalists — “the best band I have ever had,” he said — including The Mastersons, who had opened the show. The Mastersons are Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, a husband-and-wife team who also form part of The Dukes on this tour. Their songs, harmonies and musicianship set them apart from other duos and their opening set was wonderful, as was the energy they brought to Earle’s set.
Whitmore joined Earle on vocals for a superb rendition of “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me,” bringing the Cajun to Asbury Park. Earle also talked about their unforgettable experience performing the song in New Orleans with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
The moving “Goodbye” had an exquisite arrangement; Earle sang this song with the sensitivity of someone savoring the words and the sentiment for the first time. Following “Goodbye,” Earle returned to Clark material with “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” “The Randall Knife,” “L.A. Freeway” and “New Cut Road.”
Since the Asbury Park area had been plagued with power outages, resulting in many detours on the way to the show, everyone at Asbury Lanes was happy that the show was going on. But around 10:20 p.m., the power cut out — lights, sound, everything. Earle, cool dude that he is, told us not to worry because “we are gonna play something,” at which point there were some audience suggestions to go acoustic. The band left the stage, but the power came back and the instruments were reset to allow them to finish the show with a vengeance, grabbing the audience and shaking it up so that it was clear that the power was indeed back, and then some!
When Earle played the opening strains of “Ireland’s other national anthem of folk,” we knew we were in for a rabble-rousing rendition of “The Galway Girl.” It felt like everyone thought they were from Galway as they matched Earle’s energy, singing every word back to him while dancing through the foot-tapping instrumental phrases that the band delivered with the same expertise we had experienced throughout the show.
Earle did not forget to pay tribute to New Jersey, in the form of an explosive performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac,” which Earle effortlessly made his own as we all, once again, chanted the words of the iconic song along with him.
At the end of a much appreciated encore, for those who could not get enough, Earle led the band in a beautiful rendition of Clark’s “Old Friends” with superb harmonies. It was perfect ending to an absolutely wonderful show — a beautiful, heartfelt homage to one of the greats from his “old friend” … who, it turns out, is one of the greats himself.
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