These days Steve Earle is a frequent visitor to New Zealand - he's a keen trout fisherman - and, of course, in today's music world touring pays the bills. This time out he comes direct from shows in Australia - complete with a four-piece Dukes - boasting a new drummer, ex-Ryan Adams and The Cardinals' excellent Brad Pemberton. This was the final show of a long tour promoting his latest release Terraplane but Earle and band were in high spirits.
Looking around the audience as the band made their entrance to Robert Johnson's eerie moan -- I suspect there were more than a few who'd attended Earle's blistering metal-rock show at the Town Hall in 1990 - back when he was a rock radio staple and fully-functioning heroin addict. Earle's current Dukes (only the bass-player remains from those days) are a different proposition bringing a much welcome swing and subtlety to the material (multi-instrumentalist and singer Eleanor Whitmore is a real asset). Thankfully their Grammy-winning leader -- now 61 -- remains a charismatic, one-of-a-kind talent, boasting a catalogue of songs his heroes (Dylan, Townes Van Zandt) might envy.
He also does a nice line in stage humour.
"When I look in the mirror these days I see my Dad's ghost," he said mid-way through the two hour show. "Or I ask myself "who brought Allen Ginsberg in here?""
In guitarist Chris Masterson (who looks uncannily like Nick Lowe) Earle has found a skillful accompanist, and one who shines on the bluesier material -- of which there was much tonight.
Most of Earle's 16th album the blues-focused Terraplane -- got an airing.
We also got a healthy dose of Earle's 1986 debut Guitar Town, this being its 30th anniversary - including a scrappy My Old Friend The Blues, Someday and a note-perfect title track.
"Okay - those with ankle bracelets on can all go home now," Earle joked said after wrapping up a rousing Copperhead Road which drew the loudest applause of the evening.
Back in the 90s Earle's onstage comments concerned Auckland's lack of A class drugs -- tonight at a busy Tuning Fork, Earle was in a more playful mood -- and it was the blues not narcotics (Earle has been clean and sober for over 21 years) that energised him. He talked fondly of both Mance Lipscomb and Lightning Hopkins and his Texas blues roots. Politics - a big part of earlier shows - barely got a mention.
Still Earle made a point of following South Nashville Blues about scoring in the bad old days - "I'm real proud of that song - but it makes out that I had a lot more fun than I actually had in those days" - with a brutal CCKMP (Cocaine Can Not Kill My Pain) - "this song always reminds me why I never want to go back there again".
When launching the "chick" part of the evening the newly single (seven divorces) Earle said - "The women think this or that song is written about them but they're always wrong, they're all about me!"
A haunting Goodbye (covered powerfully by Emmylou Harris) was a highlight, but it was the uptempo numbers which brought the room to life - Usual Time of The Night, Aint Noboy's Daddy Now, and especially the silly Go Go Boots Are Back.
"I've written a lot of songs and some of them are pretty good," Earle said at one point as he changed guitars. Few would argue with that.
Greg Fleming is an Auckland-based writer and musician. Follow him on twitter