Steve Earle & the Dukes at the Birchmere

IMG_4224It’s a brash move to close out a show on one of the hottest days in the D.C. metro with a song called “Christmas in Washington,” but Steve Earle’s career has been one of brash moves.

He started his generous show at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday with a handful of songs from an album that’s only been out a month, beginning with its title track, “So You Wanna be an Outlaw.”

The collection followed an all blues and a lighter approach with Shawn Colvin on a duet album, he returned to ringing outlaw country, inspired by old Waylon Jennings and a couple of songs he had written for TV’s Nashville.

Backed by a stomping version of the Dukes that was sweetened by pedal steel and fiddle, he eventually brought in those early career anthems like “Guitar Town” and “The Galway Girl” (its bagpipe sounds courtesy of the keyboards).

The Christmas song was less about the season and more about the chorus, “”Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now.”

He had just lead a singalong “This Land is Your Land,” with its own new Trump Tower verse and Guthrie’s spirit was hanging in the air.

“Christmas in Washington” was written on another disappointing election 20 years earlier:

The Democrats rehearsed getting into gear for four more years

Things not gettin’ worse

Republicans drink whiskey neat and thanked their lucky stars.

Politics was less a part of the show than might have been expected; Earle’s a lifelong outspoken activist who was on the Bernie bandwagon until the end.

But songs like “City of Immigrants” rang true in the political atmosphere, coming just after the timeless declarations of “Jerusalem” (Joan Baez recorded both).

He apologized once again that he knew that “Taneytown,” also from the “El Corazon” album from which “Christmas in Washington” came, was actually pronounced TAW-ne-town in Maryland, and the sellout crowd forgave him.

The trouble with having a band backing is that there was less of that intimate finger-picking and pre-song narration of which Earle excels.

It came later during the Guthrie reverie, but he also took time to talk about the heartfelt loss of songwriter Guy Clark earlier this year, which led to his new song “Goodbye Michelangelo.” As with Guthrie, it would have been further bolstered by doing one of Clark’s classics (he’s done a good job with “Desperados Waitin’ for a Train” in the past).

Earle mentioned more than once his most recent ex-wife Allison Moorer, particularly in boasting that he helped her finish the lovely song “News from Colorado” with Emily Earle, his niece, an artist who was on the third season of “The Voice” and, he added, “lasted four weeks and never ended up in Cee-Lo Green’s hot tub.”

He saved the heaviest song for the end of the main set — his snarling post-murder “Fixin’ to Die,” whose themes, and sonics, were continued into another song about shooting one’s lady down, “Hey Joe.”

Keeping it all in the family, he had his Dukes guitarist and fiddling husband and wife team, Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, opening the show as the Mastersons.


The setlist for Steve Earle & the Dukes Tuesday was:

  • “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw”
  • “Lookin’ for a Woman”
  • “The Firebreak Line”
  • “Walkin’ in LA”
  • “Sunset Highway”
  • “News from Colorado”
  • “Guitar Town”
  • “I’m Still in Love with You”
  • “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had”
  • “Goodbye Michaelangelo”
  • “Jerusalem”
  • “City of Immigrants”
  • “You Broke My Heart”
  • “The Galway Girl”
  • “Little Emperor”
  • “Acquainted with the Wind”
  • “Copperhead Road”
  • “Taneytown”
  • “Hard Core Troubadour”
  • “Transcendental Blues”
  • “The Week of Living Dangerously”
  • “If Mama Coulda Seen Me”
  • “Fixin’ to Die”
  • “Hey Joe”
  • “The Girl on the Mountain”
  • “This Land is Your Land”
  • “Christmas in Washington”


Here’s an interview I did with Earle recently for The Vinyl District.

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