Fort Worth is a weird town. Only thirty miles from Dallas, a city that revels in its haughty pretentiousness, Fort Worth is proudly “Cowtown, U.S.A.” Most of the men look like extras from a John Wayne movie set – rigidly conforming to a uniform of cowboy boots and Western wear. They grimace often, perhaps wondering if it is time to wake up Little Joe and Hoss to fight the Indians off of the Ponderosa. The big event in Fort Worth every January is the “Stock Show” where prized cattle and hogs and goats are brought in from all over the country to be judged. I had to walk through about a thousand head of live hamburger meat to get to the Ely gig tonight. If Tiny Tim had been raised in Tarrant County, he would have warbled about tiptoeing through the cow patties.
If that’s a bit much in the local color department, you have to realize that Joe Ely left Lubbock in the early 1970s, but Lubbock has never left Ely. West Texas is ingrained in his songwriting, his thinking, even the clothes he wears. Ely joined with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the early ‘70s to form the Flatlanders, a musical apprenticeship that was later labeled “more of a legend than a band.” He later did two stints on MCA, one in the late ‘70s and the other in the ‘90s, but he has never had the slightest hint of true commercial success. I’m not sure how much that matters to him. For Ely, his life’s work is not about cultivating an image or chasing hit records. As corny as it sounds, it’s all about the song for Ely.
I’ve seen Ely perform in a number of configurations over the past several years – solo acoustic, with the Flatlanders, with the Joe Ely Band, and performing with one accompanist (with flamenco guitarist Taye, with traditional guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn, and one evening with a percussionist who played only on a box known as a cajón). The stock show gig was with the Joe Ely band, which must have a rather fluid membership – it was a completely different backing unit than he had a few years ago.
Ely’s strength is that he writes good songs and covers even better ones. On this evening, he oddly alternated between a high energy rocker and a slow tempo number throughout the entire evening. As passionate as he is as a performer, I don’t think he would be physically capable of phoning in a gig, he never transcends his material. He’s exactly as good as what he is singing and the setlist was full of juicy gems.
Ely started the evening with his own “My Eyes Got Lucky,” the type of lighthearted, clever numbers that his one of his specialties, but the momentum quickly picked up with his cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.” “Freightliner” is based on a deathless blues structure that a good band can take anywhere and David Holt used the opportunity to incorporate some serious Freddie King licks into the tune. Other highlights of the evening included the seldom performed “Boxcars,” Butch Hancock’s eerie composition that Ely included on his excellent 1978 album Honkytonk Masquerade; “Dallas,” a Flatlanders song about the simultaneous allure and danger of the city; and “The Road Goes on Forever,” Robert Earl Keen’s look at a petty crime spree that leaves one person on death row and his accomplice with a Mercedes Benz. Still, my favorite moment of the evening was “All Just to Get to You,” a marvelous travelogue about overcoming hardships to reach the one you love. If Ely has a signature song, “All Just to Get to You” is it.
This was a good night for Joe. The band clicked, most of the song choices (excepting “Slow You Down”) were ace, and the band was tight when it needed to be and loose when it chose to be. For the encore, Joe performed two songs of faith. Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” is as beautiful a song about the Christian ideal as you will ever hear. The last number of the night was the Ely/Flatlanders version of Woody Guthrie’s “Sowing on the Mountain,” sounding like a hymn that you might hear at the Lubbock Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. Ely’s as terra firma as it gets, but he’s always got an eye on the horizon.
Grade – A
My Eyes Got Lucky
White Freightliner Blues
Nothing Much Has Changed
The Road Goes on Forever
I Had My Hopes Up High
All That You Need
All Just to Get to You
Are You Listening Lucky
Slow You Down
Where Is My Love
Billy The Kid
Sowing on the Mountain
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