Steve Earle made his final appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman Monday night, performing "You're the Best Lover That I Ever Had" — a stomping, steaming slab of juke joint blues from the recently released Terraplane.
The gig arrived nearly 26 years to the date after Earle's first visit to Letterman's show, on February 9th, 1989. Back then, he was still knee-deep in the promo cycle for Copperhead Road, an album that pitched its tent closer to the rock & roll camp than the country territory Earle had been canvassing during the first half of the Eighties. Appropriately, he ripped through the title track with help from a loud, five-piece backing group that included his own lead guitarist, Dwayne "Zip" Gibson, and the members of Letterman's house band.
"That is an electrified mandolin!" Letterman said after the 1989 performance, pointing to Earle's instrument. "Is that like a combination of a guitar and a violin, or is that a dumb question?"
"Uh, it's a real dumb question," Earle replied.
Last night's performance was a different animal, capturing a wised-up (and perhaps a bit wizened) songwriter who's learned how to turn down the volume without losing his snarl. Backed by the newest version of Dukes — whose membership now includes husband-and-wife duo the Mastersons — Earle reworked the grit and groove of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" into his own bittersweet tribute to a departed lover. Is the song about his split with Allison Moorer? Maybe. One thing's certain, though: a life filled with ups, downs, hard time and harder luck can create some excellent blues.