It's Joe's world -- we just listen in.

Ely's Gold 

It's Joe's world -- we just listen in.

In a world worth a good goddamn, we'd just say Joe Ely's in town! and y'all would get your asses in the seats. Instead, even though the guy's been tearing it up since the late '70s; even though he's mined a dozen records from that juke-joint sweet spot where rock and country eye each other, make sure nobody's around, and then get to getting it on; even though he gets called the Texas Springsteen, despite being un-embarrassing in ways neither Bruce nor Houston could possibly manage in 2005; even though he toured with the damn Clash, who knew every song on his Honky Tonk Masquerade, just after it had unleashed London Calling -- even though all this should be coming out of Casey Kasem's fool mouth every week, anyone writing up Joe Ely still has to hit the basics.

So, know this. Joe sings rock. Texas rock, but not that idjit, guitar-wanking, white-boy, bluesy-beer-commercial, Buddy Holly-ain't-no-Texan Texas rock. And Joe sings country, but not like it isn't rock. And Joe gets a Mexican thing going, hanging with Los Super Seven, or bringing along his own Spanish guitar pro for something like "Gallo del Cielo," a seven-minute cockfighting epic.

Yeah, lots of folks can kill in one of the three. But Joe, he nails them all at once.

He came up with the '70s country pioneers the Flatlanders, three talented guys who, though they each blistered with singular talent, worked better together than on their own, even if they didn't ever get anywhere until well after they broke up. Jimmie Dale Gilmore had the ghostly voice of an old 78 record but wrote only sporadically. Butch Hancock wrote visionary songs but sang like some Hanna-Barbera Dylan. Joe was the only one who could rock, the only one to get a label deal, the only one who could translate that Texas weirdness into anything that anybody thought might sell.

It didn't, but who cares? The Flatlanders never truly split: Hancock and Gilmore wrote half of the songs on Joe's first two records, every one of them a classic. Listening to them now, it's hard to imagine that such durable, hummable, downright American music could ever have been an artistic risk. But this was 1978: Recording honky-tonk that was this playful and poetic was as uncompromising as anything the punks pulled off.

Other records followed, best among them the hard-rock Dig All Night, the border-straddling Letter to Laredo, and the live sets. He toured his ass off, and -- as far as I can tell, having caught him three times with three different bands -- is as likely to put on a bad show as the Grand Emporium (his old stomping ground) is to ever really be forgiven for becoming a successful dance club.

That this time he's showing sans band, with only accordionist Joel Guzman, is no cause for concern -- stripped-down Joe has soul and grit, and his rock's just a wave, not the water. Asses in the seats, people.

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