Joe Ely, Rhythm Room, 3/19/13

Joe Ely @ Rhythm Room|3/19/13

Surprisingly, there were only two cowboy shirts in Rhythm Room last night, that paltry number growing to three once Joe Ely took the stage. Strange for an artist with deep West Texas country roots, but it only serves to highlight Ely's musical appeal that crosses genre lines for the sake of the song.

Ely is a songwriter first and foremost. That the music backing his lyrical tales is of a twangy variety makes sense given the geography of his upbringing: Lubbock, Texas. It's also the jumping-off point for many of his epic vignettes about seemingly foreign places in our own country, where people sweat and toil to eke out an existence in dying towns, dilapidated bars, and broken-down vehicles with hardship, jail, and sour luck surrounding them. It's not always happy fare, but Ely weaves his tales with such personal appeal that empathy is required for the obvious reality of these songs that just can't fully be made up. It was this way during the 90-minute show with Ely adjusting the tempo up or down slightly as he sang about a circus melee, fighting cocks, señoritas, modern-day and vintage outlaws, highway journeys, cotton farmers, standing at the crossroads and dangerous plane rides.

With Ely on acoustic guitar, supported by multi-instrumentalist Jeff Plankenhorn (mostly on lap steel) it was a stripped-down affair that gave focus to Ely's words. Amazingly, 20 songs filled the night, capturing all aspects of a career that began in the late 1960s and includes an on- and off-again relationship with the Flatlanders, featuring also critically acclaimed songwriters Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.

Ely opened the proceedings with "I'm Gonna Strangle You Shorty" and "Not That Much Has Changed," before kicking it up ever so slightly with "All That You Need." Though Ely had a setlist, he interspersed it with songs shouted from the crowd. "You're a pretty good set list," he encouraged the audience at one point. He mixed favorites and better known cuts such as "Me and Billy the Kid," "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me," and "The Road Goes on Forever" with delicacies including "Big Hotel," "I Wish Hard Livin' Didn't Come So Easy to Me," "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night," and the lost (and recently found) Flatlanders' "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown."

"I like to dig up songs I haven't played in a while and songs I haven't heard before," he said, eliciting some laughs.

One such rarity -- and audience suggestion -- was "Electric Indian." Ely explained writing this song about his time working in the circus and a night when a storm wreaked havoc. He never actually recorded it, but he played it for friend Guy Clark, who did. "Then Townes Van Zandt recorded it," he said. "So I never did."

An important component of Ely's songs is his delivery. Mere words are not enough. Subtle delivery can make or break a song, and Ely's a master. On this night, he was spot-on, with a rich tenor and smooth cadence, adding just the right inflection at the proper moments and providing emphasis to telling points of the song. Clearly, he was enjoying himself as well. Opening act Joe Pug and his guitarist, Greg Tuohey, joined Ely for a rocking set closer of "White Freight Liner Blues." It showed what Ely could do with a full band as the solos rained down and the volume went up. But Ely adroitly cooled things back down with "Gallo del Cielo," his tale of an unbeatable fighting rooster that one man rides his fortunes, and ultimate worldly losses, upon. With Latin twang, it was vintage Ely.

"I'm Gonna Live Forever," closed the show with a hope that the songwriter, still clearly operating in peak form, just might do that. Last Night: Texas troubadour Joe Ely

Personal Bias: With Ely, the story makes the song, and he's one of the best.

Overheard: "Oh, that's good." Said by Ely every time someone shouted a song, no matter what it was. (He didn't always play them, however.)

Random Notebook Dump: "Songs are mostly short but feel much longer due to the depth of character in each."

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