Steve Earle is no stranger to this island, or to the Olympia stage, having played his first show in Ireland at this venue in 1988, when there used to be Midnight At The Olympia gigs. As soon as the intro bagpipe sample from ‘Copperhead Road’ went off, signalling the start of the show, the bar emptied, save for (one of) Steve’s ex-wives, and two burly Northern truck drivers. “Aren’t you going to watch the show?” asked the ex-Mrs. Earle of her fellow tipplers. “Who’s playing?” they responded. “Steve Earle,” she informed them, thus eliciting the further inquiry: “Who the fuck is Steve Earle?” For a £10 ticket they could drink until 3am, in the only late night watering hole in the city then with a proper licence.
It’s safe to say that no such lessons in humility will be dealt to Earle and his band tonight, and that all audience members know exactly who and what they’ve paid to see. Some things don’t change, though, and following a mellow first half ‘Copperhead Road’ kicks off the second set, a relic from a time when Earle was briefly being groomed as the thinking person’s alternative to Bruce Springsteen. The early portion of this evening also revisits American Civil War epic ‘Dixieland’ as well as the Del McCoury bluegrass collaboration ‘The Mountain’, itself a tale of strip-mining and the labour movement which opposed it. This is interspersed with a rousing rendition of the inevitable ‘Galway Girl’, with vocal support from Steve’s wife Allison Moorer and multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore, whom Earle refers to in an aside as ‘stereo redheads’.
The mid-section of the show draws heavily on current album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, with outings for the rocky ‘Meet Me In The Alleyway’, the anti-American exceptionalism of ‘God Is God’ (‘God is God/And God ain’t us’), and the Moorer duet ‘Heaven or Hell’, originally written for a projected second Robert Plant/Alison Krauss record which never came to pass, and so reclaimed by Earle because it was ‘too good to waste’. Also featured is ‘This City’, the song David Simon, writer/director of New Orleans-based TV series Treme and The Wire asked Earle to write on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (‘not a natural disaster, but a crime’ as Steve tells us in his introduction). This is something else which hasn’t changed, Earle still likes delivering his between song activist homilies, an ongoing commitment to leftist politics that makes the likes of Bono look like a reactionary. What makes it palatable from Earle is that he does it with a large dollop of humour, and rarely comes across as hectoring or preachy.
What has changed is that, with the addition of The Duchesses, there is now a distinctly domestic vibe to Steve Earle and The Dukes, with not one, but two husband-and-wife acts on stage. If Mick Jagger once expressed incredulity that Paul McCartney would want his missus in his band, with Macca’s explanation being simply that ‘I wanted to be with her’, then Steve Earle is these days rather more of a Beatle than a Stone. But family life ain’t all bad, especially when it’s the Steve Earle Travelling Family Roadshow.