Steve Earle Calms the Storm in Iowa City
By Mark Hilton
Photo by Kim Reed
Late-afternoon rainstorms didn’t scupper Steve Earle’s headlining performance at the Iowa Arts Festival on Saturday night, but it did cause Earle to alter his plans. Billed as “Steve Earle and the Dukes,” the wet weather prevented Earle’s road crew from safely setting up his backing band’s equipment; festival-goers were instead treated to a solo acoustic performance from Earle. “This isn’t the show I envisioned,” Earle told the crowd, “[but] I didn’t want the tour to end without Iowa City being part of it.” Earle has made stops in Iowa City on each of his last four tours, including two sellout shows, and he’s currently touring in support of his 2013 album The Low Highway.
None of these factors deterred the crowd, which seemed relieved that the rain stopped and thrilled that the show was going ahead. Earle walked onstage just after 9:00 PM to loud cheers from the crowd. With only a small rack of instruments behind him, Earle dug into recent cuts like “The Low Highway” and “Burnin’ It Down,” which elicited whoops and cheers from the audience when Earle sang the line “I'm thinkin' bout burnin' the Walmart down.” Fan favorites “Copperhead Road,” “The Galway Girl,” “The Mountain,” and “City of Immigrants” all made appearances, the latter of which Earle turned into a Pete Seeger-style sing-along. Earle strapped on a mandolin to play “Remember Me,” a moving tribute to his four-year-old son with autism. Earle’s career-spanning set-list included songs dealing with fraught relationships (“This one goes out to what’s her name, wherever the hell she is”), the systems that perpetuate oppression (“There are forces to be reckoned with, there’s no doubt about it”), and our sometimes callous treatment of each other. He is an artist for whom no wound is too deep, no struggle too intense that it can’t be mined for a song.
Though the skies were clear and the air chilly during Earle’s performance, signs of the day’s rain were still present. Lingering moisture was blamed for Earle’s guitar cutting out several times during the middle of the show. Earle struggled to keep his guitars in pitch and had to tune them frequently between songs. A potential pitfall, Earle used these moments to entertain the crowd with stories from his long career in music and his dalliances with film and television (some unfamiliar crowd members may have recognized Earle from his role as the drug counselor Walon in the HBO series The Wire). Earle was entertaining and unabashed throughout his two hour set, which ended with a standing ovation and a two song encore. It may not have been the show that Earle envisioned, but the festival crowd didn’t leave disappointed.