Steve Earle Endorses Sanders, Frets Over Trump at NYC's City Winery: Live Review

Steve Earle’s residency at the City Winery represents an opportunity for a career retrospective. He declared as much a few songs into his set last night in Manhattan: “My intention is to play one song from every album I ever made.” It’s a chance to mull over the past, to start a new year by revisiting the old ones and giving voice to various historical personas.

Earle’s persona hasn’t change that much though: you can trace a thread from his first album, Guitar Town, all the way to the present. On “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)” from 1986, he described economic torpor: “Getting’ tough, just my luck/ I was born in the land of plenty, now there ain’t enough.” And in 2013, on “21st Century Blues,” he lamented “hard times in the new millennium/ Getting’ by on just the bare minimum/ Everything to lose and nothing to spare/ Going to hell and nobody cares.” The American dream is a myth -- stagnation rules.

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Though the message stayed constant, the medium has shifted: Guitar Town spawned a top 10 hit on the country charts, relying on a rave-up sound similar that of to Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, but filtering it through honky-tonk (Earle grew up around San Antonio) and a touch of Buck Owens. In the years since, Earle drifted away from country signifiers, embracing the blues, haggard ballads (think Nebraska instead of Born In The U.S.A.), bluegrass, folk, and homages to outsider singer-songwriters and prototypical drifters, notably Townes Van Zandt. Earle is comfortable and persuasive -- though more predictable and less energetic -- in this mode.

At City Winery, he sprinkled biographical anecdotes in between songs, sketching an abridged version of his musical story. He remembered hanging out with country legends (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jack Clement); he joked about smoking weed with the musicians who played on his bluegrass album (The Mountain). And he summed up a record label tiff with the bravado of a Hollywood agent: “what part of Neil Young and David Geffen and ‘fuck you’ didn’t they understand?”

But politics were front and center – with his guitar and harmonica getup, Earle embodied a certain notion of a liberal troubadour, and he preached to mostly eager disciples. He played “The Revolution Starts Now,” the title track to an album he put out in 2004, and accompanied it with an endorsement of Bernie Sanders; he fretted about Donald Trump; he issued a politically astute -- and potentially unpopular -- assessment of Bill Clinton’s place on the political spectrum.

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He did manage to sneak in a few romantic numbers, like the bar band blues of “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had.” The set's most cutting moment came during “Goodbye,” a love song so bleak it seems to make a mockery of other tunes about heartache. “Was I just off somewhere or just too high?” Earle wondered. “I can't remember if we said goodbye.”  

The night ended with a rendition of “Christmas In Washington,” allowing Earle to reach back to the themes that have animated him since the beginning: “To listen to the radio, you'd think that all was well/ But you and me and Cisco know: It's going straight to hell.”

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