Copperhead Road revisited: Steve Earle and the Dukes back in Vancouver

Steve Earle and the Dukes with The Mastersons at the Commodore Ballroom, 9/29/18

Steve Earle and the Dukes: 30th Anniversary of Copperhead Road Tour @ The Vogue Theatre in Vancouver B.C.
Photo by Peter Ruttan

“It’s a pretty fucking political record!” Steve Earle exclaimed a third of the way through his set at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom on Saturday night. He and the Dukes had just finished playing side one of his iconic third album Copperhead Road in its entirety as part of its 30-year anniversary tour.  

Earle was perplexed as to why people claimed his artistry turned political later in his career when the first five songs from the album are all narratives about people who were struggling in the aftermath of Vietnam or social oppression.  

“It took us 10 years to be able to talk about it,” he explained.

Steve Earle and the Dukes: 30th Anniversary of Copperhead Road Tour @ The Vogue Theatre in Vancouver B.C.
Photo by Peter Ruttan

As per usual, the crowd for Earle was diverse, even by Vancouver standards. Revelers wore a fascinating mix of the following: leather vests, plaid shirts, cowboy hats, real beards, high heels, bandanas and mowhawks.  Some of them pumped their fists, most of them drank a lot, a few of them slow danced, and a few more unleashed a little more belligerence than the Grammy Award winning country folk-rock star was willing to put up with.

Neither was Elenore Whitmore, lead vocalist for The Mastersons, a husband and wife duo who played double duty as both the supporting act and as members of Earle’s backing band, the Dukes.  The charming couple are self-proclaimed “pilgrims of the interstate,” and their song “Don’t Tell Me to Smile” was inspired by a belligerent fan at one of their concerts.  The pair sported bold hair and sung songs that were highlighted by spotless vocal harmonies. Their song “Fight” required some audience participation, and was inspired by their ninth wedding anniversary.

Steve Earle and the Dukes: 30th Anniversary of Copperhead Road Tour @ The Vogue Theatre in Vancouver B.C.
Photo by Peter Ruttan

The first song Steve Earle and the Dukes played was mega-hit “Copperhead Road.”  The synthesized bagpipes gave way to that familiar, anthemic drumbeat as the mandolin kicked in and really defined the tone for the evening.  There may have been other songs on the album and in the set that people were excited to hear, but this was the song that everybody knew all the words to.  This was the song that everyone had a story about hearing once, twice or over a period of time in their life.

By the time the first five songs were delivered, Steve Earle was in fine storytelling form, entertaining the crowd with anecdotes and fun facts.   

“Side two is where the chick songs are,”  he chuckled. “When you were out hunting and fishing and shit, this is what your women were listening to.  That’s why I put it on the other side of the record.”

Steve Earle and the Dukes: 30th Anniversary of Copperhead Road Tour @ The Vogue Theatre in Vancouver B.C.
Photo by Peter Ruttan

At least one of the remaining songs in the set was from his most recent album So You Wanna Be an Outlaw.  “Firebreak Line” is a truly heroic narrative and it was passionately introduced.  The remainder of the evening was mainly songs from Earle’s earlier works or songs that he has played live many times before.  “Galway Girl,” the celtic-infused song about unrequited love was a crowd pleaser. “Hey Joe” was the final song in the set, and was one of many tunes that showed off the musical prowess of guitarist Chris Masterson.  

For the first song of the encore, Earle took the stage by himself and delivered a solid rendition of Ian Tyson’s  “Summer Wages.” It’s a tune that has made the rounds of Earle’s setlist for many years now, and his gravelly voice made it sound like advice from someone who has lived to tell the tale.  

Perhaps that’s what makes Earle such a great performer.  It’s not simply that he can tell a good story, but that he has some really great stories to tell.  Sometimes they are told through songs and sometimes as a preamble to a song. But always with a guitar in hand.   

It was evident that many of his fans are in this for the long haul, which isn’t coming to an end any time soon.  Earle has two albums in the works – one, a Guy Clark tribute album, which was recorded five days before their arrival in Canada, and the other, new material that is likely to hit airwaves in the next 18 months or so.

Steve Earle and the Dukes: 30th Anniversary of Copperhead Road Tour @ The Vogue Theatre in Vancouver B.C.
Photo by Peter Ruttan