in performance: joe ely and joel guzman

joe ely 1

joe ely.

Among the stories Joe Ely told last night before a capacity crowd at Natasha’s was a yarn about his musical tutelage in West Texas. It dealt with weekend gigs outside Lubbock with early bandmates Jesse Taylor and Lloyd Maines that gradually grew from audiences of 25 to about 100. That was before a local preacher gave a Sunday morning sermon about the sins of Saturday night, mentioning Ely’s name “about seven or eight times” as an example. Convinced he would have to move his band out of town, the champion songsmith and roots rocker decided to finished his commitment of remaining performances, only to find a crowd of 800 awaiting him the following Saturday.

“I sent the preacher two tickets to our next show,” Ely said. “It was a ‘thank you’ for the free advertising.”

Last night, the fervor was perhaps less obvious with Ely, now 67, resetting his high-strung rock ‘n’ roll to an acoustic duo setting with accordionist Joel Guzman. But that simply offered a more intimate setting for the musical stories he has penned over a four decade recording career as well as several prime choices from a few of his Lone Star pals.

The show opening Run Little Pony (an original tune from 2000’s Streets of Sin album), set a blues narrative in motion of a hapless blue collar-ite who blows his track earnings on celebration only to wind up behind bars. “Ain’t got a brain in my head,” Ely sang with dry cunning. “Guess I never will.”

The song also introduced the remarkable support Guzman provided the 1 ¾ hour performance. Though his stage demeanor was reserved, Guzman’s playing was continually joyous as he provided Ely’s everything from orchestral color to rockish punctuation to, in the show’s finest moments, a rich Tex Mex accent.

All of those aspects alternately came into play during I Had My Hopes Up High, the first song from Ely’s self-titled 1977 debut album. A cheerful roots rock performance piece in decades past, Guzman helped this new acoustic version find its own unique footing.

Ely also gave plenty of stage time to tunes by his bandmates in the long running Texas troika The Flatlanders. From the pen of Butch Hancock came the lonesome wail of Boxcars with a spirited jam initiated by Guzman. The other Flatlander, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, was recognized with a light, luscious reading of the plaintive Tonight I’m Gonna Go Downtown. But perhaps Ely’s greatest Texas cover belonged to an elegant but still conversational version of the great Billy Joe Shaver affirmation Live Forever.

Tom Russell’s brilliantly constructed Gailo del Cielo (the most honestly heartbreaking song about a fighting rooster referencing Poncho Villa that you will ever hear) wound the evening down along with Randy Banks’ show-closing Where is My Love.
Ely remarked he first heard Russell’s version of the former blasting from a jukebox in Norway. How fortunate the song, along with all of Ely’s Texas treats, found their way to Lexington last night in such vital, regal and revealing form.

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