Joe Ely’s sizzling shows still bring out the pagan in a crowd. So why does megastardom seem to be just beyond his grasp?
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JOE ELY HAS A NEW ALBUM out this month called Love & Danger, his tenth in an illustrious career that has spanned three decades. Besides having a solid bunch of songs and sparkling production, it features Ely’s usual energetic delivery and David Grissom’s guitar pyrotechnics. Even so, Love & Danger probably will not be the vehicle that carries Ely over the top and into major stardom. That really doesn’t matter, though, because the whole point of Joe Ely has always been hearing him live, not listening to him on disc, vinyl, or tape.
This realization came to me one summer evening while I stood thirty feet from the bandstand at the Broken Spoke, an Austin honky-tonk that was so mobbed that all I could see of Ely was his black hat bobbing above the swirling crowd. A stranger might have thought the sight lines were lousy, but for hard-core fans, it was everything a live music performance should be: exciting, participatory, and energizing. If you weren’t sweating, you weren’t having a good time.
Suddenly, one of the Ely faithful—a man in his forties with a shock of frizzy white hair that suggested he was either a University of Texas physicist or a West Texas native who had been out in the sun too long—nudged me with his elbow. “Man,” he yelled over the din, “he’s better than Springsteen!” I smiled in agreement and hoisted my can of Pearl to the ceiling, which was all of six and a half feet above the floor.
Joe Ely has been flirting with bonafide stardom for twenty years or so. Back then, he seemed perpetually on the verge of a breakthrough. Today, at 45, the lines on his face are more pronounced and the prospect of captivating the masses seems faint. He has made the transition to middle-aged semilegendary status rather gracefully, though, and still has a cadre of fans who will follow him almost anywhere he goes.
For Ely, the Broken Spoke date—the sixth of eight stops in a long week’s worth of Austin-area performances—was a chance to road test a new guitar player named Ian Moore and reacquaint himself with keyboardist Reese Wynans, who had signed on again after a ten-year hiatus. For the loyalists, the tour provided ample opportunities to worship their hero up close and personal as well as close to home. And for at least one interested bystander who has tracked Ely’s progress since his first album was released back in 1974, the show was an opportunity to muse why Joe Ely is not a monster rock star on the same level as Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp.
Blame it on the roadhouse tradition. Since the thirties and forties, when Bob Wills, T-Bone Walker, Milton Brown, Milt Larkin, and Gatemouth Brown stomped around dance halls and ballrooms, the standout Texas bands have distinguished themselves playing in front of live audiences instead of in the recording studio. Back then, live performances were simply good business. The door receipts were far more lucrative than record sales.
That rule has changed markedly in the past thirty years. Today’s big acts invest months in creating the perfect album, which will reach a far larger audience than performing in front of a couple hundred folks six nights a week. For most major music acts, playing live is merely a way to promote their latest release. Consistency is the name of the game.
Look at ZZ Top. In order to replicate their album performances, the three musicians are augmented in concert by prerecorded tapes, and every show is as tightly choreographed as a Broadway production. Within such constraints, improvisation is a no-no and spontaneity can ruin a show. Fortunately, there are still people like Ely, Delbert McClinton, Marcia Ball, Jerry Jeff Walker, Anson Funderburg, and other Texas roadhouse warriors (including the late Stevie Ray Vaughan) who haven’t reached superstar status and still believe that one’s worth can be affirmed by playing the joints.
In the greater realm of pop music, Ely and his ilk are anachronisms. But in the more immediate, intimate world of Texas music, they are heroes, the main reason fans throughout the rest of the world envy us. Where else can you find musicians like these, willing to place their careers on the line every night?
Back in the mid-seventies, Joe Ely put together perhaps the most exciting band I’ve ever heard perform live. The musicians were all residents of Lubbock at the time, and not only did they look the part—right down to Ely’s scruffy bandanna and boots—but they also sounded it. Together they created an unmistakable West Texas sound, full of the energy and dynamics of Buddy Holly’s Crickets. The band, particularly guitarist Jesse Taylor, squeeze-box man Ponty Bone, and pedal-steel player Lloyd Maines, was exceptional, but so was the front man. Ely came across as a wandering bard who could sing a love song as easily as a ballad; the tales he wove of gypsies, Airstream trailers, and diesel rigs had the ring of truth. Like any good roadhouse band, Ely and company had broad appeal. They could keep the boot-scooting couples busy on the dance floor in Levelland one week and captivate a green-haired mob in London the next.
Unfortunately, the qualities that made Ely so riveting onstage made him a tough sell on the radio. Was he country or was he rock? The professionals pushing his product could never figure it out, nor could the radio programmers. Maines’s steel guitar didn’t weep the way a steel was supposed to in sad songs; it cut and sliced like razor wire, and that most certainly did not fit in with the Nashville sound. But when the record pushers tried to sell Ely as a rock act, the same radio people pointed to Maines’s pedal steel and Bone’s accordion as being too country. His third album, Down on the Drag, seemed to be a compromise in light of the “folk” treatment given it by producer Bob Johnston, but Ely himself never really tried to second-guess why he couldn’t be pigeonholed.
By 1980, Ely and his band, minus Lloyd Maines, had migrated to Austin, one of the few cities in the world where musicians who played original music in clubs could actually eke out a living. But for various reasons, the glue that had kept the group together did not hold, and eventually Ely replaced his old sidemen with a jazz-rock fusion group called Passenger. They performed with technical precision, but they lacked the spirit of the old Lubbock mob.
Subsequent albums—first for MCA, then for the custom label SouthCoast Records, and later for the independent label Hightone—were uneven. Ely’s best record, a live album done on tour in England titled Live Shots, was available only as an import for more than a year. His worst, Hi-Res, was made with the help of an Apple computer. But the only thing high-tech about that album—or Ely—was the trademark digital-calculator bolo tie that he wore then.
By the mid-eighties, the musician had settled in with a group that included hotshot guitarist David Grissom, bassist Jim-my Pettit, drummer Davis McLarty, and (on and off) saxophonist Bobby Keyes, a Lubbock product who had racked up extensive roadwork with a tough little English combo named the Rolling Stones.
Even with that band’s 1989 Live at Liberty Lunch album, though, the excitement of Ely’s live performances still did not effectively transfer to tape. By 1990, even the recording careers of Ely’s old Lubbock songwriting compadres, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, had surpassed his own. Ely was now a grizzled, graying rocker on the downside of forty, still wearing leather pants. The image was not calculated to appeal to the youthful record market.
Still, no matter how his recordings fared, Ely could always knock a crowd dead on any given Saturday. He never threw in the towel, and neither did his fans, one of the most loyal groups ever to stand in line for a hand stamp. Even when David Grissom departed last winter for the big bucks and creature comforts promised by arena rocker John Mellencamp, Ely’s shows continued to give the audience plenty to believe in.
Their faith was rewarded at the Broken Spoke. Yes, Ely’s execution was far from perfect, and the place was so crowded that it was impossible to see and difficult to hear the music. The new band was sloppy, and it muffed more than its fair share of notes. New guitarist Ian Moore is a talented riffmeister, but he was still trying to figure out where he fit in. Likewise, the support musicians were a far cry from the unit led by Grissom, much less the Classic Joe Ely Band that reunited for a weekend up in Lubbock in May. But even given all these drawbacks, the concert was sure a lot more fun than an evening at Carnegie Hall.
The credit goes to Joe. He delivered the standards expected of him, such as Butch Hancock’s “Boxcars” and his own “Johnny’s Blues,” and he made more recent additions like “Me and Billy the Kid” and Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever” sound as if he had been doing them for decades. At least it sure felt that way to me, and it seemed to affect the rest of the audience too. Cowgirls in tight jeans shimmied like crazy. Couples slow danced between tables. Two grown men spent the whole night on the dance floor bonking each other over the head like the Three Stooges. Electricity was in the air that night.
Joe Ely may not be the Next Big Thing, but he certainly is a survivor. For the pleasure of his concerts alone, I really do hope that the road goes on forever and Joe’s party never ends.