Steve Earle deserves to be happy. The 56-year-old troubadour with a troubled past including a heroin problem, seven failed marriages and jail time on drug and firearms charges is, as he explained to the Ogden crowd on Friday night, “the king of second chances.”
Despite his colorfully rugged personal history, Earle is a prolific songwriter, a three-time Grammy winner, a social activist and a hard working, ever-touring live performer. Earle’s last several Denver appearances have been solo outings, and though he is one of a small handful of performers capable of carrying shows entirely on his own, it was fun to get to see him with his band, currently touring as the Dukes and Duchesses.
Earle’s happiness seems largely connected to his 2005 marriage to Allison Moorer, a alt-country singer-songwriter 20 years his junior. Earle and Moorer have collaborated on recordings under both of their names, and Friday’s show featured a number of her songs peppered throughout the show, particularly in the first half. Unlike a small but vocal group of long-time Earle fans behind me at the crowded Ogden, I found Moorer to be an engaging performer. Over the course of the night she played more than half a dozen instruments and sang a soulful rendition of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” that she dedicated to she and Earle’s 17 month old son, John Henry. Moorer also sang alongside Earle on several songs, her thin build, red hair and lefty troubadour’s muse status evocative of Patti Scialfa.
Steve Earle’s apparent marital bliss does not mean he’s gone soft — musically or politically. His two and a half hours of music featured a wide variety of songs across multiple genres, from the Skynrd-esque classic rock of “Copperhead Road” through the frolicking bluegrass of “Galway Girl” to the poignant “This City,” Earle’s tribute to New Orleans featured on the HBO series “Treme.” His band featured notable Houston alt-country guitarist Chris Masterson and his fiddle/mandolin-playing wife Eleanor Whitmore, who alongside Earle and Moorer tore through the 50 or so instruments parked on the side of the stage. As is customary, Earle also used the stage as soapbox for a number of progressive talking points, including the state of American education (“we need to pay the teachers!”) as well as pro-labor and environmental issues. And despite the undeniable mystique of the tortured artist, bad boy image that he may have left behind, the fact is that the kinder, gentler Steve Earle is still creating interesting, thoughtful, heart-felt music.
Amy McGrath is a Denver-based writer and regular contributor to Reverb.