WFUV (90.7 FM) treated a select group of Steve Earle fans to a super-intimate set February 25 at the historic Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street. Earle, who said he came down with a cold shortly before the show, didn’t show any signs of ailment whatsoever as he and his band the Dukes kicked through an hour-long set featuring songs from their new blues album, Terraplane.
Earle switched effortlessly from harmonica to mandolin to acoustic guitar and a wailing electric for the band’s last songs of the night, which included a supreme version of “Hey Joe,” an obvious ode to the original proprietor of the studio. Jimi Hendrix commissioned the psychedelic mural on the back wall, Earle told the crowd, though sadly he wouldn’t live long enough to see it completed or record much in the studio. “He went to play Isle of Wight and never came back,” he said wistfully.
As for how Earle liked playing in the space?
“It’s got ghosts in it,” Earle said. “But I’m not opposed to that.”
With that apparitional spirit in the air, Earle skulked into “Tennessee Kid,” his retelling of Robert Johnson’s devil-at-the-crossroads myth, complete with eerie narration and guttural hey hey heys, in which Earle seems to channel John Lee Hooker. (Even though Terraplane is Earle’s first blues record, it sure didn’t sound like it.)
Other highlights included “Gamblin’ Man,” the classic ramblin’-gamblin’ number sewn up tight with Earle’s Lightnin’ Hopkins–ish guitar picking, Earle’s dirty old harmonica on “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” and the unexpected mandolin on “Acquainted With the Wind.” “Mandolin on a blues song? Why not!” Earl joked before jumping in.
While the Dukes prove they have no problem stepping from alt-country to blues, it’s guitarist Chris Masterson’s work that seems particularly suited for this album, especially on “Go Go Boots Are Back,” which features a catchy lick Keith Richards could’ve tried his hand at that drives the whole cut and is guaranteed to lodge right between your ears.
Fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore delivers the goods as well. Her golden vocals on the duet “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me” shine especially bright against Earle’s. “I don’t have to apologize/My baby’s just as mean as me” — dysfunction never sounded so good.
“Sometimes the cure for the blues and the path to the blues is sheer audacity, which is one of my best things,” Earle told the crowd before swaggering into blues bragger “King of the Blues.” And with the applause peaking, they quickly turned it around into a rocking “Hey Joe,” doing justice to the house and the man who built it.
Probably the most surprising thing about Terraplane is how unsurprising it is to hear Steve Earle and the Dukes play blues songs. Because their music is so rooted in the blues, nothing comes off forced or overly nostalgic. Earle mentioned to the crowd that the second show he ever saw was Canned Heat, which is where he learned about Hooker, an influence that’s easy to hear. (By the way, his first show? The Beatles.)
“The blues are many things to many people,” said Earle. “What’s important to me is what it is to me.” Audacious indeed, but merited, too.
Jimi Hendrix Finishes His Electric Lady Studio on 8th Street
Kurt Vile Shares Wakin on a Pretty Daze at Electric Lady Studios
The 60 Best Songs Ever Written About New York City