Credited to Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses),
The Low Highway
is the first album in 23 years on which Earle has shared billing with his backing ensemble, a measure of his affection for what he called "the best band I've ever had" on the stage of the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville Friday night.
That band, featuring husband and wife multi-instrumentalists Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore - who played a brief opening set as the Mastersons - alongside longtime rhythm section Kelley Looney and Will Rigby, lived up to the compliment during a two-and-a-half-hour show that mixed the entirety of The Low Highway with songs from Earle's long and varied career.
Over the decades, Earle has tried his hand at folk ballads and rock anthems, Kentucky bluegrass, and New Orleans soul, but between versatile musicianship and a well-ordered set list, the transitions were barely noticeable.
While his band's road-forged rapport enabled The Low Highway's stylistic reach, traveling the country with them inspired the album's focus. Earle recalled looking out the window of his tour bus and seeing "probably the hardest times any songwriter of my generation or the generation before has seen."
In "Invisible," a panhandler's request for "a dollar and a dime" evoked the Great Depression, while in "Burnin' It Down," a man lingered in his pickup truck, thinking about torching the Wal-Mart that has irrevocably changed the face of his hometown.
He also spent a chunk of the last several years in post-Katrina New Orleans playing a busker on the TV series Tremé, an experience that informed a five-song mini-set that kicked off with the defiant "That All You Got?" and closed with the melancholy stoicism of "This City."
Earle closed the show, part of a brief U.S. tour leading up to the European festival season, with "The Revolution Starts Now." But his best songs are more about enduring hardship than overturning it.