Steve Earle’s politics took a back seat to affairs of the heart during his concert Friday at the newly renovated Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor.
“Some people think I’m a political songwriter, but I’ve written more songs about girls than anything else,” he told the sell-out audience at one point.
Not that Earle held back from stating his views. He heartily endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, expressed concern about climate change and ended the show with his trademark raised-fist salute.
But the music, for the most part, took another turn. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour set by Earle and his band, The Dukes, was filled mostly with songs from his latest album, “Terraplane.” Earle wrote the blues-drenched tunes on the album during a period of separation from his latest wife, musician Allison Moorer.
Earle opened with “Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” the first track on “Terraplane.” The song, with its thumping bass riff and lyrics of unrepentant longing, set the tone for the evening. Earle punctuated his gritty vocal work with stinging stabs from his harmonica.
Next up was “You’re the Best Lover I’ve Ever Had,” also from “Terraplane,” as Earle and The Dukes went to play other songs from the album. Among them was “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me,” a Texas-swing tune which Earle sang as a duet with band member Eleanor Whitmore. Whitmore, who once studied with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble, gave her mentor a nod during her fiddle solo on the song.
As well-received as these songs were by the audience, it was when Earle launched into his hit “Guitar Town” that the Criterion started rocking. As that song ended, Earle strapped on a mandolin and strummed the opening chords to what might be his biggest hit, “Copperhead Road.” The audience response grew almost exponentially.
Earle proved himself to be a convincing ballad singer on “I Thought You Should Know” from his 2004 Grammy Award-winning album, “The Revolution Starts Now.” His soulful delivery and timing showed a side that often gets overlooked by his fans.
It’s not news that Earle has lived a hard life. He has endured addiction, jail time and six marriages (twice to the same woman). His songs often reflect these hardships. Now sober, he referred to his past addiction to drugs and alcohol during the introduction to a song called “Cckmp,” which he performed without the band.
“Welcome to my nightmare,” he said as he began singing of how only heroin and not cocaine and whiskey can ease his pain.
Along with Whitmore, The Dukes are Kelly Looney on upright and electric bass, Will Rigby on drums and Whitmore’s husband, Chris Masterson, on guitar. Looney has been a member since 1988, Rigby since 1999. Whitmore and Masterson also are veterans of the band. Each member is a talented musician in his or her own right. As a group, they are a tight unit and complemented Earle’s songs with tasteful precision.
Earle ended with a cover of the ‘60s classic “Hey Joe.” The band took cues from the Jimi Hendrix version of the song, and it proved an electrifying choice which left the crowd cheering as the musicians left the stage.
They weren’t gone for long. A standing ovation called them back. Another thunderous ovation had them back for two more – the title cut from “The Revolution Starts Now” and another ‘60s classic, “Wild Thing,” which ended in a feedback-riddled sonic assault as Earle placed his electric guitar in front of his amplifier and twisted the knobs of his effects pedal.
The concert was the first at Criterion since its reopening this spring and was an early sellout.