Steve Earle live in Belfast

Steve Earle underwhelms in The Limelight, Belfast as the crowd steal the show for all the wrong reasons. Folk and Tumble check what should have been a great show.

In the world of country, folk, blues and many other genres, the name of Steve Earle is whispered in revered tones. A phenomenally prolific writer, a powerhouse troubadour, a keen reworker of the songs of others, actor, activist and voice of sanity in an America gone mad with flag waving, gun toting and general lunacy. It’s perhaps the starkest images from that last statement that lend his ethos so kindly to today’s Belfast. The gun toting is less, the flag waving all too prevalent and as a country we’re literally pasting over the cracks of recession where Earle, Van Zandt and Guthrie before would’ve preached the truth with guitar licks and good liquor.

Should be a great gig then? Almost a thousand fans crammed into one of the city’s newly refurbished venues. A chance for Earle to preach on a Sunday night. To go all Ezekiel 25 on our asses and rain down songs with ‘great vengeance and furious anger’ and yet rather than preaching to the choir, Earle’s schtick falls by the wayside; those little seeds of corn that fell along the pathway and never took root.

When an artist and a crowd combine to make it nigh on impossible to review a show, you can tell you’re in for a long night. When Steve Earle announced pre gig that no professional photographers would be permitted to take shots and the chatter from the assembled masses often drowned out what was happening on stage, I was left at something of an impasse. Should I simply abandon all hope of reviewing or just tell it like I found it? Well, whether in a beanie, a trilby, a trucker or a stetson; you’d better hold onto your hat…

The Familiar Faces
These punks, hippies, old teddy boys and rockers come together in harmony on nights like this. Steve Earle is equally likely to attract the peace activist, the biker or the disillusioned punk and we love to see these guys all out enjoying themselves. Like an old pair of stone-washed Wranglers, it takes Steve and this motley crew a while to settle in but by the time we get to Earle’s post-Katrina anthem ‘This City’ we’ve set out our stalls for the evening and although it’s mostly known from the soundtrack to Treme this is where Earle and the Dukes take us right back as close as the modern world can get to Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl 1930s.

“This city won’t wash away. This city won’t ever drown.”

rasps Earle from the stage. It’s a defiant stance we know well in Belfast and it’s certainly not the last time tonight when the sounds from the stage provide an eerily fitting backdrop to the back of the bar action.

The Heartbreakers
Country songs often deal with breakups and booze. It’s a vicious circle of heartache and hangovers that’s as old as alcohol and acoustic guitars themselves. After kicking off apace with the likes of ‘Calico County’ and ‘Hardcore Troubadour’ Earle drops things down a gear, slows to a country waltz and puts forth an achingly excellent rendition of ‘I Thought You Should Know’. I’m still not sure whether the elderly couple having the blazing, gin fuelled row at the back before storming off their separate ways were a distraction or an addition to the performance. Let’s just say, Steve Earle waxing lyrical about ‘breaking hearts’ and ‘little black dresses’ was a little more poetic than the language used back here.

The Yacht Club Yuppies
Alongside his sterling songwriting, Earle is probably best known is recent times for his condemnation of “the rich and the assholes”. He proudly states that ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ is about the exception to the rule. Warren Hellman is the decent 1% of that 1%. The tune’s a proper old foot-stomper, all banjo twang and snarling attitude. The biblical references come thick and fast and as he hollers about “standing on Jordan’s shore” you can’t help but wonder at the little crew of investment banker looking types in polo shirts and Pringle sweaters nodding along in drunken acquiesce.

The Tanked Up Tractor Boys
There’s been a lot of chatter throughout the evening, some of it from genuine fans who seem to have got into some sort of dick measuring contest over how many times they’ve seen the band. But far and away the buzz has been from the casual listener here for a gutsy rendition of ‘Copperhead Road’ or ‘Galway Girl’. Naturally they’re not going to be disappointed. ‘Copperhead Road’ was a masterclass in whipping a crowd into a whoopin’and hollerin’ country frenzy; lads in checked shirts stamping their desert-boot-clad feet and shouting out the lyrics just like their momma taught them back in the homelands of Fermanagh and Tyrone. While she might have versed them well in their music, she could probably have educated them a little better in the ways of common decency. Between swigs of Blue WKD we hear four ‘lads’ banter about how they’ve “cornered” two girls outside. Absolutely disgusting behaviour and not what I’m keen to hear at a gig anytime ever again. By this stage though, Earle is going through the motions and letting the crowd take lead vocals on ‘Galway Girl’. They only know those two lines and the band seem fairly apathetic. I’m mostly concerned that there’ll be a couple of girls going home with black eyes rather than the traditional blue.

The Music Fans
Mostly I’m taking a swipe at a few sub-sections of the crowd but there are of course hundreds of genuine music fans here. There are many long time followers of the Real Music Club who continue to bring great music to Northern Ireland and promote the best of local talent. Dedicated Steve Earle fans have battled through the sea of plaid and facial hair down to the front and late in the evening we catch up with Belfast’s own ‘Hardcore Troubadour’ Duke Special who is positively gushing about the show and reassures us that the sound and atmosphere down at the front are nothing short of sublime.

For once there’s a disparity between the evening’s events and the Steve Earle songbook as he sings in ‘Guitar Town’

Nothin’ ever happened ’round my hometown and I ain’t the kind to just hang around.

We feel like we’ve been through some kind of Americana Armageddon, fighting our battle from the wrong side of a divided venue. As long as Jim, John, Gerry and the music club lads keep bringing acts of this caliber to town we’ll keep the Folk & Tumble flag flying in support.