For the uninitiated, the scene at City Winery in Chicago is a posh and intimate one. The crude ambiance that’s typical of your average, garden variety rock club is replaced by warm lighting, while wooden tables give the room a layout that’s more on par with a The Whistler than Schubas. The loud, pre-show chatter and blaring music over the PA is nowhere to be found, but there’s plenty of low-spoken, intimate conversation that can be heard in pieces all around the room. Then there’s the libations. No PBR here, but there’s an endless supply of top-shelf red and white wine that’s begging to be uncorked.
In other words, it’s the kind of place you’d never expect to find a guy like Steve Earle. The singer’s past struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism have been well documented, and even after 19 years of clean living, the threat of a possible relapse still lingers, however far or near. “Guys, if you could not drink in line, Steve’s in recovery,” a staffer cautioned fans who were waiting by the singer’s merch table after the second night of his three-night residency at the venue on Feb. 22nd. Old demons die hard, and Earle, 59, isn’t taking any chances.
But while a winery might be an odd venue choice for a singer with a history of dependency issues, it’s also perfectly suited to Earle’s songbook, which is stocked with literate, confessional roots rock gems. Armed with little more than a handful of acoustic guitars, Earle opened up to the sold-out crowd with two hours worth of music and stories, treating a room full of perfect strangers like they were welcome guests in his own expansive living room. After an agreeable opening set from Canadian singer-songwriter Leeroy Stagger primed fans accordingly, Earle took to the stage with no introduction, diving right into his back catalog. The show’s Storytellers-esque vibe allowed the singer to delve humorously into the backstory of many of his tunes. We learned how “Valentine’s Day” was born out of a feeling of regret for not being able to buy flowers for his wife. Stories were shared about his son and fellow musician Justin Townes Earle, his relationship with the late Pete Seeger, and the importance of actually seeing a film for which you’re contributing music to the soundtrack. Solid advice.
But in between the always heartfelt and often hilarious bits of conversation, there were songs, and Earle generously spread the wealth, gracing fans with cuts from across his hefty repertoire. The hard-luck folk tale “Tom Ames Prayer” shared time with songs about addiction (“Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain”) and plenty of others that waxed nostalgic about past love (“Now She’s Gone”, “Goodbye”, “Sparkle and Shine”). There were longtime set staples (“I Feel Alright”, “Copperhead Road”) and newer entries that seamlessly found their place on the setlist (“Low Highway”). For fans who missed out on the earnest enthusiasm of Tin Pan Alley, Earle is a modern day folk poet laureate who wears his many emotional colors on his sleeve. Despite the potential distractions his surroundings could have offered, Earle instead was lockstep in his element, and the setting at City Winery perfectly teed up the singer to deliver on expectations.