On Monday night, Joe Ely took to the Birchmere stage in front of an enthusiastic crowd that at times sang along with him, and at other times rewarded him with a standing ovation. Ely seemed relaxed and in good spirits, peppering his set with humorous anecdotes while breathing new life into a catalog that showcased the genius of his west-Texas point of view.
Joe Ely gets tagged with a million labels from Americana, to alt-country, to honky-tonk, and everything in between. He has performed with Springsteen, the Chieftains, and The Clash. At any given moment in his storied career those labels, and a dozen more, fit. But perhaps the best term to describe Ely’s body of work is authentic.
While the airwaves are filled with pop country music that exalts certain symbols of American life, symbols that it has effectively turned into caricatures, it is the integrity of Ely’s songwriting that sets him apart as an artist. To be sure, Ely’s story songs paint pictures of honk-tonks, broken hearts and life on the road, yet his brush strokes aren’t broad, but rather they are nuanced, and finely detailed.
It is in the words, and his delivery of them, that Ely establishes his honesty. It becomes immediately evident that he is not marketing an image, a pseudo-country complete with pick-up truck, an awesome babe in tight jeans, and case of beer. His tales of love and loss aren’t epic, they’re much closer to the vest, and to home. His characters feel real, in every sense of the word.
His use of humor avoids the corn-fed, commercial jingle variety so often found in the worst examples of popular music. Put it this way, if the phone don’t ring, don’t blame Ely. Even when he turns a phrase like “I wish hard living didn’t come so easy to me,” Ely doesn’t insult the listener’s intelligence. There is a road worn gravitas in his performance that shows his respect for the song and the people who live inside its lyrics.
On this night Ely was accompanied by Joel Guzman on accordion, and the interplay between acoustic guitar and the squeeze box was heavenly. The lack of a full band seemed to invigorate the performance and lend itself to the intimate nature of Ely’s songs, and his relationship with his audience. Guzman’s solos and flourishes were perfectly matched to each number and Ely appeared quite pleased with the depth of the simple arrangements.
Along the way, Ely referenced the recent floods in Texas, adding, “A few years back I remember Rick Perry saying we needed to pray for rain. I think we might have overdone it.” The introduction to “I’m Gonna Strangle You, Shorty” brought laughter from the crowd.
All the classics were there, the expectant crowd rewarded for their faith. “Wishing for a Rainbow,” had Ely observing that “There are some who sanctify revenge.” Ely followed this with “I’m a Thousand Miles from Home,” and his voice testified that he felt every stretch of blacktop. When Ely sang “Tennessee is Not the State I’m In,” he provided a perfect portrait of why his music matters, and how far he is from the glossy pre-fab product pushed by the purveyors of Bro Country.
For his encore Ely called for opener Lucette to join him onstage. Along with Guzman, they turned in a stellar rendition of the “Long Black Veil.” To say the evening was sublime was to wallow in understatement.
J.M. McSpadden III is a writer and a roots music enthusiast who believes that every life needs to find its own soundtrack, and every road trip is an opportunity to full tilt boogie. Let's face it, people, a car ain't nothin' but a stereo on wheels.