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Tag: joe Ely

A Rare Midtown Show by Americana Songwriting Icon Joe Ely

Joe Ely may be iconic in Americana music circles, but he’s hardly resting on his laurels these days. Joe Strummer’s favorite country singer has seen the cult favorite debut album by his early 70s supergroup the Flatlanders reissued, along with his hard-to-find 1983 solo record B484, one of the first releases to utilize what was then state-of-the-art computer technology. Earlier this year, a previously unreleased duet by Ely and Linda Ronstadt was rescued from the vaults. His thinly veiled autobiographical novel Reverb: An Odyssey is out, and is as brilliant and understatedly surreal as you would expect from an eloquent pioneer of what would become known as alt-country back in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. If that isn’t enough, Ely is the Texas State Musician of 2016. And his latest darkly relevant, immigrant-themed album, Panhandle Rambler – streaming at Spotify – employs a wide and distinguished group of talent from his Austin circle. It might be the best solo album he’s ever done. His most recent gig here was with the Flatlanders at Carnegie Hall several months back, but he’s making a rare return to NYC with a gig on July 27 at 8 PM at B.B. King’s. Advance tix are $27.50.

The album’s first cut, Wounded Creek builds from an ominous thicket of acoustic guitars and bass into a darkly bluesy southwestern gothic ballad, Ely at the top of his game as purposefully imagistic storyteller. The similarly uneasy, tiptoeing Magdalene also works an allusive, haunted storyline, an outlaw couple on the run. “I don’t know what comes next,” Ely confides, “Your guess is as good as mine,” Joel Guzman’s accordion wafting in the distance. Coyotes Are Howling keeps the border-rock suspense going, a gloomy American narcocorrida of sorts:

Bright lights are flashing
Both red and blue
It’s nowhere near Christmas
But it’s long overdue

When the Nights Are Cold sardonically nicks a famous Pink Floyd riff for a somber portrait of illegal immigrant angst. Early in the Mornin’ follows a similar, more enigmatic tangent, blending elegant Mexican folk touches into late 70s outlaw honkytonk. Southern Eyes works a sarcastically shuffling western swing groove, followed by the folk noir hobo tale Four Ol’ Brokes.

Wonderin’ Where is a bittersweetly nostalgic William Carlos Williams-ish tale with Memphis soul tinges. Ely goes back to outlaw balladry with the brooding, ghostly Burden of Your Load, arguably the album’s best song:

State prison? Don’t get distracted
Keep your eyes on the road
The weight will be subtracted
From the burden of your load

Then the band picks up the pace with Here’s to the Weary, a populist anthem referencing Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills and George Jones. Jim Hoke’s ghostly steel keens icily in Cold Black Hammer, a darkly wry, Tom Waits-style story of a real femme fatale. The final cut is the unexpectedly hard-rocking You Saved Me, drawing a straight line back to Buddy Holly. Throughout the album, there’s all kinds of tasteful, often Spanish-tinged picking, contrasting with Guzman’s echoey, 80s-style synth lines, in the same vein as the Highwaymen records. Ely’s voice is a little more flinty now, which suits him fine since subtlety and stories have always been his thing. It’s another release that really should have been on last year’s list of best albums here.

Revisiting a Lost Classic from the Flatlanders

Some members of the mp3 generation may not realize how complicated the recording process used to be. These days, pretty much anybody with a phone can make an album. Forty-one years ago, when the Flatlanders recorded their legendary debut album, it wasn’t uncommon for a band to make several demo recordings in the process of creating a definitive, finished product. These could be equally useful as both a guide for engineers and producers, and an enticement for label execs to sign the band – or simply keep them in the fold. Considering that a particular song could be worked to death before it actually made it as far as a master tape, there have been innumerable instances where a band’s demos, rough as they might be, capture an energy lost in what could be an arduous transition.

The case of Lubbock, Texas high school friends and oldtime country enthusiasts Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock is more simply a great rediscovery (they’re playing Carnegie Hall tonight, if you’re feeling especially flush with cash). Prior to recording their debut, a small step at the time but highly influential today, they went into a local studio in Odessa, Texas late one night and did just more than bang out fourteen tunes – it turned out to be an evening to remember, one whose results arguably surpass what the band would come up with a few months later. This original recording – like the Million Dollar Quartet, never meant for public consumption – went AWOL for many years before being rediscovered and eventually rescued by New West Records last fall, and released as The Odessa Tapes.

As is common with demos, there are no drums on this recording, adding to the nocturnal lushness created by the interweave of the core members’ three acoustic guitars along with Tony Pearson’s terse, incisive mandolin and Sylvester Rice’s equally minimal upright bass. The band’s friend Steve Wesson, who had then only begun to play music, joined them on autoharp and singing saw. The songs are short: there are no instrumental breaks and barely intros or outros. And they’re period pieces: like so many up-and-coming Americana artists of that era, these guys were as influenced by populist hippie folk as much as oldtime C&W and honkytonk.

The album opens with I Know You, glimmering, bittersweet and aphoristic, with harmonies to match anything Willie Nelson ever wrote. Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown foreshadows the sophistication of songwriters like Amy Allison as much as it looks back to Hank Williams, while Down in My Hometown offers a warped hippie nod to oldtime county gospel. There’s an especially biting, low-key take of Dallas, Gilmore’s brooding bright-lights-big-city blues, as well as four previously unreleased tracks including an unexpectedly morose blues by the usually high-spirited Hancock and what might be the strongest track here, Gilmore’s Story of You, a lushly enigmatic Texas take on Orbison Nashville noir. In fact, what’s most striking about this album is how dark so many of these songs are. “The windbreaks and the watersheds are growing low this year,” Gilmore warns on You’ve Never Seen Me Cry. And the almost comically surreal Bhavagan Decreed reminds that “You can burn your brain cells out just trying to get higher, but you’ll find the highest places underground.”

Albums like this underscore how the history of music continues to be rewritten, shedding light on how much more diverse, creative, regionally and stylistically unique music was and remains across the country and around the world. More and more, we see that what the major labels were signing in decades past was just a small piece of a far deeeper and vaster panorama, much of which has turned out to be far more interesting than anything that ever reached commercial radio.