Ely returns triumphantly
Union Station Pavillion, St. Louis, June 28
By Roy Kasten and Bill Sacks
ST. LOUIS - After 10 years without an area appearance, Joe Ely made his return count.
For over two hours in the evening heat, Ely and his band poured out strings of his most familiar material with an anthemic intensity.
Focusing on songs from his most recent release, "Letter to Laredo," Ely opened with Tom Russell's "Gallo del Cielo," revealing the astonishing depth of its narrative and allowing guitarist Tai a vehicle for his formidable talents. "Gallo" demands the listener's complete focus - its plays on internal monologue are close to the workings of a novel as American popular song has yet come - and the audience responded with quiet attention, followed by thunderous applause.
Ely will turn 50 next year, and during more than two decades as a recording musician his career has taken a myriad of subtle changes in direction, not all of them equal in quality.
In many ways, his current band (Tai on classical guitar, Glen Fukiyama on bass, Dan Harvey on drums and Jesse Taylor on electric) combines elements from his best recent projects.
This rhythm section can create a scorched-earth sound which matches the Liberty Lunch band for power, while at other times the interplay of acoustic guitars can evoke the whistfulness of the most traditional country songs from "Honky Tonk Masquerade," making this perhaps Ely's most versatile small group.
Having seen an expanded version of this same band give a memorableperformance on a recent "Austin City Limits," one hoped Ely would have a steel player and fiddler on the bill for this gig as well: he has proven time and again that the greater the dynamics of his groups are, the more intricate the tensions of his best songs become.
By contrast, there have been times when, having found himself in front of a group of less capable players than these, Ely has decided to try putting himself over on sheer bombast.
Fortunately for the crowd of 250 who turned out at the Union Station Pavillion, he maintained all of the finesse and precision one could hope for, while still being able to put real force into great outlaw material like Robert Earl Keen's "Whenever Kindness Fails."
After a quiet version of "The Road Goes On Forever," which it seems Ely has stolen forever from Keen, his long-time Texas compadre Jesse Taylor came up for a rendition of Butch Hancock's "Box Cars."
"The first time I heard this song," Ely explained, "it hit really close to home." And as if to acknowledge the strange atmosphere of Union Station - a large mall and fairground built in and around the remains of an old train station, where retired Amtrak cars are cemented to unused tracks as decorations - he added, "This is an ode to the trains."
The body of the song was a showcase for Fukiyama's fluid bass harmonies, but climaxed when Ely brought the band and crowd to near silence while he picked out the melody in single notes on his acoustic. The crowd response was resounding.
After a wonderful "Letter to Laredo" which offered Tai room for a well-kindled flamenco improvisation, the stage was turned over to Jesse Taylor, who led the rhythm section through two swaggering Texas blues covers, including the signature song of the late Johnny "Guitar" Watson, "Gangster of Love."
Ely's return to the stage further revealed his signature dedication to merging narrative with rollicking honkytonk, moving from "Me and Billy the Kid to a rousing version of "Road Home" with considerable power. He even managed to get a typically demure St. Louis crowd singing and dancing to Buddy Holly's "Oh, Boy."
If this show is representative of where Joe Ely's career as a performer stands, listeners taking pleasure from great songcraft should take the time to seek him out on the upcoming legs of his tour.
Ely's own focus and enthusiasm are at a remarkable high point, and his new group compliments him admirably.
Set list for Joe Ely:
Gallo del Cielo
Ranches and Rivers
Black Spanish Love Seat
The Road Goes on Forever
St. Valentines Day
Where Is My Love
Whenever Kindness Fails
Letter to Laredo
Jesse Taylor's Set:
Gangster of Love
One OClock in the Morning
Me and Billy the Kid
Settle for Love
1000 Miles from Home
Get to You