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Steve Earle @ Open House Festival


With an image of the ascending Christ as a backdrop, the sanctuary of Bangor Abbey would be an imposing stage for many lesser artists than Steve Earle, who, from the opening unnamed new song to the closing favourite ‘Copperhead Road’, ensures the sold-out Bangor crowd’s attention remains on the music rather than on the discomfort of the church pews.

The absence of a merchandise stall, café and bar facilities, or a support act does not detract from an intense yet entertaining set from the Texan, who admits between songs, “It’s not the first time that I’ve played in a church, but it freaks people out sometimes.” However, the only aspect of the evening that may freak people out is the polite willingness of the stewards to accommodate large groups of people wanting to sit together. Like many of the events run by the Open House Festival, now in its fifteenth year and really hitting its stride, tonight’s gig is tremendously civil and good-spirited.

Earle returns to the uniqueness of the venue several times between songs, and after warning that the lyrics of “Tom Ames’ Prayer”, in which a career criminal prays for God’s help to outrun the law, might get him into trouble, it is ironic that his guitar cuts out halfway through the performance, followed by a broken string a few songs later. However, after a swift change of strings Earle transforms the mood of his set with the reflective, meditative ‘God is God’, which he once described as “the kind of song you write when you’re fifty-six”, from his recent album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.

The evening wasn’t all songs of faith and doubt though, as Earle filled what he knowingly called a “chicks section” of his twenty-song set with some of the sweetest and most heartfelt love songs from his back catalogue. Other highlights included an unexpected airing of ‘I Feel Alright’, which was featured in Season Two of the acclaimed series The Wire, a show in which Earle also starred as the kindly drugs counselor Walon. He is, let’s not forget, a man who knows a thing or two about the ravaging, malignant power of addiction, experiences that he has channeled into his brutally honest songs.

For such an imposing figure, Earle always tempers his work with self-deprecating humour. For example, after a mandolin-led sing-along to ‘Galway Girl’ he apologises to any Irish musicians who’ve had to play the song countless times at weddings.

Earle has fitted this show into a solo travelling schedule that will culminate with the recording of a new album in October, and he has plans for two further albums after that – one with Shawn Colvin, and then a straightforward self-declared “country” record. And as he determinedly exits the stage to a standing ovation before hitting the road again one gets the impression that Earle is one of the few remaining American troubadours committed to following their creative muse wherever that road may take them. Jonny Currie