Friday Night: Joe Ely Band At Rockefeller Hall
Saturday night, almost exactly 24 hours after the Joe Ely Band's triumphant return to
Rockefeller's Rockefeller Hall, Aftermath and a friend were chatting on Facebook about Houston's current bumper crop of up-and-coming indie bands. Some people around town seem to have convinced themselves these groups will be appearing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon or tapped to open the next Flaming Lips tour any day now, but we were more skeptical.
Yes, this is how we spend far too many Saturday nights. Shut up.
Aftermath's friend said it was hard for him to rustle up much enthusiasm for these groups after what we had both witnessed Friday night. Yes, we agreed, but suggested that perhaps it's a bit unfair to hold these baby bands to the same standard as Ely.
After all, the Panhandle pinwheel and longtime Austinite was already blowing the doors off Southwestern saloons and honky-tonks (like, for example, Rockefeller's) when these kids' parents were in school. Still, our friend said, "muscle is muscle. Put that with riffs and wisdom and you've got something."
Of that, there can be no disagreement. Friday, Ely and his three bandmates - guitarist David Grissom, bassist Jimmy Pettit and drummer Davis "The Party" McLarty - coupled enough energy to give one of those baby bands a run for their money with the kind of wisdom laid bare in the lyrics of opener "Hard Livin'":
"Hard liquor, fast women, Lord I can't leave 'em be/ I wish hard livin' didn't come so easy to me."
Up close, it was easy to see every one of the 30 years since "Hard Livin'" first appeared on 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta LP etched into the band's faces - on Ely and Pettit most of all, and hardly at all on the cherubic-looking Grissom. McLarty spent the entire two hours the band was onstage with such a wicked gleam in his eye that any accounting of the drummer's actual age would inevitably be inaccurate.
It began with that song's yelp of howl-at-the-moon defiance, driven by Grissom's T. Rex-ian power chords, growled into "Midnight Blues"; strutted into Butch Hancock's "Lord of the Highway"; and moaned on into Hancock's blue valentine "If You Were a Bluebird." "The Road Goes On Forever" - "The Bandera national anthem," Ely joked - simmered instead of steamed.
Unlike its author Robert Earl Keen, Ely doesn't treat his telling the story of star-crossed trailer trash Sonny and Sherrie as a go-for-broke last-chance powerdrive. But it cleared enough cobwebs away that the next song, "All Just to Get to You" (Bruce Springsteen's duet of choice when he hauls Ely onstage at various Texas arenas), was a hard right cross to its predecessor's feinting left jab.
From that point on, the band cooked, and the show was dominated by Grissom. He's not a flashy soloist per se, communicating as much in watercolor chords as stinging single-note leads, but he knows exactly which note to put after the previous note, and exactly when. Then you look up a minute later, or six minutes later, and he's still doing it.
It started in the extended jam that closed out Hancock's "Boxcars," surlier than "Lord of the Highway" and bluesier than "Bluebird," and literally slowed time to a crawl during a marathon "Letter to L.A." - not the first time a singer has compared a faithless woman to the City of Angels, but still one of the best.
"Me and Billy the Kid" and "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta" made punchier palate-cleansers - the latter a real Little Richard-style rockabilly romp - but by the end of main-set closer "Cool Rockin' Loretta," Grissom had called down just about every ghost that ever stepped onstage at Antone's.
And if their own history wasn't enough, Ely and band closed with a musical mini-tour of Texas. First stop was Waco for Billy Joe Shaver's affirmation of faith "Live Forever," then Lubbock for Terry Allen's Peterbilt parable "Gimme a Ride to Heaven" - as badass as it was blasphemous - and closing a few short miles from the former Heights State Bank with Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues."
The only bad news from Houston Friday, though, was that they didn't play longer. "Y'all don't know how good it feels up here," Ely said after "Boxcars," and it was obvious he meant it.
And for a minute, during bonus encore of "Are You Listenin' Lucky?" and Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Dallas," it was almost enough to convince you they really were going to play all night. But that was it, until they return with Ely's fellow Lubbock Mafia member (and Rolling Stones saxman) Bobby Keyes at iFest on May 8.
Maybe in 30 or 40 years, one or more of Houston's indie heroes will have been through enough hard livin' to gain them an equivalent amount of muscle and wisdom. But for now, Ely and his brothers in arms remain Texas' undisputed lords of the highway.
Long may they reign.