When Steve Earle toured here last year the hellhounds were on his trail after the breakdown of his seventh – and longest lasting – marriage, to Allison Moorer. They’re still at bay – at one point tonight Earle checks his watch to tell us he’s been clean for 21 years and one week (what kind of watch tells you that?) – skulking under his sardonic gaze.
The vicarious thrill of a Steve Earle gig is watching someone whose dreams turned to nightmares and lived to tell the tale – because he tells it so well. There’s a brutal, captivating honesty in his songs about his women and his hell-raising that hasn’t dimmed with sobriety or age. Both themes recur on his latest album, Terraplane, his own smart take on blues. He chugs through the opening two tracks, Baby Baby Baby (Baby), blowing a Howlin’ Wolf harmonica, and You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had while his well-honed band settle in, before they all spread their wings on Baby’s Just As Mean As Me, where Earle duets with fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore.
He roams through his career, deliberately pausing at touchstones along the way; touchstones for us such as Guitar Town and Copperhead Road from the 80s, when he was kicking dirt in Bruce Springsteen’s clean- shaven face, and touchstones for him such as Goodbye (“the first song I wrote clean”), _South _Nashville Blues – his unflinching look at his past – or any of his poems to Allison Moorer.
But he repeatedly returns to Terraplane, transforming the show late on with the growling, highly charged The Tennessee Kid, where he gives the Robert Johnson legend a modern twist while invoking earlier deals with the devil by Faust and Mephistopheles among others. His animated rant has menacing undertones that the band exploits with glee, throwing a wicked skipped beat into the musical cauldron.