The younger Earle is his own man, who has moved past his troubled youth to produce a discography rich in music styles. He gave tastes of his Texas blues-fueled sixth album, "Single Mothers" during his solo show at the Open Highway Music Festival.
St. Louisan Emily Wallace opened with her emotionally-driven, confessional lyrics and her big, breathy voice. Between songs she cracked off-color jokes between swigs from a Stag tallboy, her act both beautiful and bawdy. During Earle's set, she sat on the floor between the bar and the stage with Earle's wife, playing with his long-haired German shepherd, Gunnar.
Earle peppered his set with bits of his extensive music history knowledge, from joking that he can't tell what key to play but, "I can guarantee that Lightnin' Hopkins didn't know what key he was playing in," before "Christchurch Woman," laughing at how out of tune Dylan's guitar was on his early albums before "Am I That Lonely Tonight," to discussing the Hank Williams-inspired 12-bar blues he borrows in "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving." New song "White Gardenias" was inspired by Billie Holiday's timing. Even with just Earle's voice and acoustic guitar he gave undertones of Holiday's strong syncopated rhythms while retaining his own drowsy drawl.
By the show's halfway point Earle summoned Hopkins again during the great's "I Been Burning Bad Gasoline." His voiced morphed from a drawl to a smooth howl with a new strength that left the formerly trembling, fragile Earle in the past where he belongs.
Not only did he look and sound healthier on stage than in years past, but his spirit was well-buoyed. Earle acknowledged his cantankerousness, but again, he's his own man, and he made it clear that he has no desire to please anyone. "The easiest way to not get your song played is to yell it," he said with a smile when audience members started hollering their requests. "I'll play what I fucking want," he said with a laugh that wasn't noticeable beyond the first few rows, although he did follow with the requested "Rogers Park."
He introduced new song "Worried Bout the Weather" by explaining that he'd written it as a duet with someone specific in mind, but recorded it solo with his desired duet partner declined. "Name names!" yelled someone in the crowd. Earle responded, "There are people powerful enough to go snap and your career is over." The awkward silence that followed made it a bit difficult to focus on the song, which is a shame. It's great that Earle forgoes the audience ass-kissing and respects his boundaries. It's a fine line that he walks much better when he puts his fear, hurt and love into the autobiographical "Mama's Eyes." He lightened the mood with "Ain't Waiting," noting that he can't do all "melodramatic and cutesy" songs.
After dedicating "They Killed John Henry" to his grandfather, Earle responded to another round of requests by saying, "When you make six records, see how many songs you remember. Try remembering everything you've done at work for seven years." He noted that he didn't have a set list, but three sheets listing his discography to inspire him on what to play.
Maybe he sensed Earle's angst, because by "Harlem River Blues," his dog Gunnar alternated between pacing by the stage and venturing into the crowd for pets. Earle laughed it off, telling about how Gunnar tried to protect him from the crowd the first time he was at a show. When he left the stage after "Single Mothers," Gunnar ran backstage after him.
Earlier, Earle had joked that he won't come out for encores if the audience is assholes. Despite the moments of irritation, we were granted an encore with a heartfelt take on his namesake's "Rex's Blues" followed by the leaving-town train of "Halfway to Jackson" with his dog on stage with him, friendly and pleased with the attention.
As he left the stage, smiling and waving, Earle said that he and his wife had been receiving threats, warning that he might shoot anyone who approached them after the show. The audience laughed, since it seemed to be a reference to an earlier joke he'd made about Texans being issued guns at birth.
"I'm serious," he said, walking out with his wife and his dog, the laughter fading.
Memphis in the Rain
Ain't Glad I'm Leaving
One More Night in Brooklyn
Baby's Got a Bad Idea
Am I That Lonely Tonight?
I Been Burning Bad Gasoline (Lightnin' Hopkins cover)
Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver cover)
Worried Bout the Weather
They Killed John Henry
Harlem River Blues
Look the Other Way
Rex's Blues (Townes Van Zandt cover)
Halfway to Jackson