BEVERLY — The tradition of Texas singer-songwriters creating heart-tugging, gutsy story songs is one of the richest in popular music. Steve Earle is a protege of two of the best, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, and many consider him to be the equal of his heroes.
Thursday night, Earle, 64, and his rollicking band The Dukes performed before an amped-up crowd at the Cabot. It was a wild affair, and Earle was as focused as I’ve ever seen him. There was no political preaching, and no rambling tales save for memories of his mentors; he was totally committed to the music and the songs. He and the Dukes delivered in spades.
Earle is touring behind his new album, “Guy,” a tribute to Clark, who died in 2016 of cancer. The set was “Guy” heavy, including splendid run-throughs of well-known compositions like “L.A. Freeway,” “Rita Ballou” and the magnificent “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” and deeper cuts “Dublin Blues,” which opened the show, and “Old Friends,” which ended it some 2 ½ hours and 28 songs later.
Earle’s story songs were pretty spectacular, too. The punky zydeco romp of “Galway Girl,” with Ricky Ray Jackson blazing away on accordion, was a blast, as were “Guitar Town” and “Mercenary Song,” whose omission would leave fans disappointed. Of course, nothing played second fiddle to the mandolin-powered, rat-a-tat drums-fueled “Copperhead Road.” The lyrics were front-and-center on the quiet gem “Goodbye,” which Earle tackled himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica.
The main set ended with a rush, a series of explosive up-tempo bluegrass and foot-stomping rave-ups. The encore featured a trio of car songs, with Earle’s “Sweet Little ’66” sandwiched between a few verses of Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” and the full-tilt boogie of Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.”
This might be the tightest, best incarnation of The Dukes yet. Kelley Looney (bass), Chris Masterson (guitar), Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, mandolin, backing vocals), Jackson (pedal steel guitar, accordion) and Brad Pemberton (drums) and their leader were in perfect sync all night. The addition of Whitmore’s fiddle and Jackson’s haunting pedal steel kicks the energy level up a notch or three.
The husband and wife duo Masterson and Whitmore, as The Mastersons, opened with a lightning-quick six-song set that included three excellent new songs that will likely appear on their next LP.