Legendary Texas troubadour Joe Ely left his roadhouse blues at home when he visited Baton Rouge’s Red Dragon Listening Room on Saturday night (08-04-18) and let his Lubbock timbre and slick fingerpicking do all the talking. Sometimes it takes a few quiet moments to really catch the gist of what a songwriter has to say, even though it’s always been right there in the notes and the phrasing. Ely, known for mixing up ballsy blues guitar with TexMex spices and rock & roll BBQ sauce, hasn’t slowed down at 71; he just will allow the other side of the wild life to come through when he’s ready and what you get is a show that is intimate, fun and oftentimes just what the doctor ordered.
The man has stories galore, about rip-roaring concerts, hanging out with the Clash’s Joe Strummer, even sitting in a rocking chair at Cracker Barrel reading the newspaper, inspiring the lines, “Just put my ashes in some shotgun shells, Get all of my friends some windy day, To say goodbye and watch me blow away” in the song, “You Can Bet I’m Gone.” His sense of humor is all over his songs, even when he is writing about death, hard living and his birthplace, Texas, with all it’s hardships and glories.
For an artist like Ely, who has a canon full of his own penned songs, sharing the words of others is a rite of respect. He pulled from Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Woody Guthrie, Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark. He honed back to his Flatlanders days with “Bluebird” and the ditty “Pay The Alligator,” which had everyone singing and shouting the refrain. He picked a mean guitar solo during Gilmore’s “Dallas” and exclaimed to himself, “Pick it Joe,” on “Hard Livin’.”
Dressed in black, his silver hair slicked back at the sides, an electrified acoustic black Taylor T-5 guitar cocked on his legs, Ely came to Baton Rouge with the purpose of showing people all that he is without being an ass about it. Kicking off on a high note with “I Had My Hopes Up High,” he simmered down into poetically quiet tunes like “Treat Me Like A Saturday Night” and “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown.” Around song seven, he was firing things up again with “The Road Goes On Forever” and “Hard Livin’.” Following the Billy Joe Shaver composition, “Live Forever,” someone shouted “Brilliant!” And Ely received an enthusiastic standing ovation for Guthrie’s “Sowing On The Mountain.” He ended the night with song seventeen, an ode to a rooster, “Gallo del Cielo.”
Old friend Bob Livingston drove eight hours just to open the show for Ely. A Texas singer-songwriter, Livingston was a founding member of the Lost Gonzo Band, who put out several records in the 1970’s, and his new solo album, Up The Flatland Stairs, came out earlier this year. Besides Ely, he has close musical ties with Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Martin Murphy, and like Ely, has many road stories he enjoys sharing when introducing a song, including one about meeting Sam Shepard at the LaFonda and witnessing the sweat drip off a dancing Jessica Lange. He then proceeded to recite a poem about lettuce by the late eclectic writer Richard Brautigan. The song was “Public Domain,” which Livingston wrote and Walker recorded. His six-song set also included “Original Spirit,” “Cowboys & Indians,” “Texas Morning,” “Up The Flatland Stairs” and “You Got My Goat.” Having never seen Livingston in concert prior to the Red Dragon show, he was a wonderful surprise and has spurred a dive into more of his songs from his forty-plus year career post-show.
Which brings us back to Ely, a legend, certainly in Texas, whose own career spans decades; yet you still come across people who don’t know the name or the music. A shame. He is such a fine example of what an all-around artist sounds like: Loud and rocking, quiet and humming, word sensitive, guitar enhancive, mood building and boot stomping. One of the best moments of the night was Ely’s haunting vocals and guitar on “Up On The Ridge.” It was like a hot wind just finding it’s wings to soar.
SETLIST: I Had My Hopes Up High, Treat Me Like A Saturday Night, Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown, Highway Is My Home, Tennessee’s Not The State I’m In, All Just To Get To You, The Road Goes On Forever, Hard Livin’, Up On The Ridge, You Can Bet I’m Gone, Bluebird, Dallas, Ain’t No Trouble To Me, Pay The Alligator, Live Forever, Sowing On The Mountain, Gallo del Cielo.