Joe Ely and Joel Guzman
Saturday, August 30
Better Than: Actually having to be in that shithole Texas
By ALAN SCHERSTUHL
Guzman played accordion and sang ragged back-up. Ely, the weathered, eccentric West Texas singer/songwriter, strummed and sang, in a hard, clear tenor, a well-picked sampling of the honest rock-country he's been knocking out for over 35 years now.
More after the jump.
Ely also used to open for the Clash.
On the London Calling tour.
And then there were the trains. A third of the way through the set, here was Ely-- an original Flatlander, the Texas Springsteen, the guy who not only helped Joe Strummer come up with that sloppy Spanish on “Should I Stay or Should I Go” but is actually hollering along on the record itself-- waiting for a train to scrape past a hundred feet away so he could launch into “All That You Need.”
That whistle so many country songs ache for blasted the Knuckleheads patio twice as loud as the musicians did. Waiting it out, Ely strummed and abandoned the opening of “Boxcars,” a train-watching classic Butch Hancock wrote but Ely made a Texas standard. Then, as steel dragged on steel, he just waited. I eyeballed the senior-discount Harley-Davidson crowd and the lit-up junkyard built around the stage: imagine the Crossroads cut in half, re-designed by whoever built the whorehouse in Porky's, and filled with folks who look like what your parents would if your parents had bothered keeping in shape.
The train shook us again, and Ely said, “I do love that sound.”
Warm applause. So potent is Ely's big-hearted farmers-and-workers, ranches-and-rivers, highways-and-freight-liners sense of Texas romance that, five songs into the set, the Knuckleheads audience was perfectly content to stop listening to train songs and just listen to trains.
(Eggheaded aside. Props to Kansas City Southern or whoever for getting all objective correlative on our asses and stirring up this key question: are we nostalgic for whatever it is trains represent because that old America was somehow better than this one, or simply because that old America was more atmospheric? Discuss.)
Ely opened Woody Guthrie's dust-bowl blues “Blowin' Down This Old Dusty Road.” A country guy turned rock guy turned folky tejano blues-something-or-other, he brings rock-star command, country storytelling earnestness, and a borderland smash-up of genres to everything he tries. By the time squeezebox hero Guzman was yanking his gorgeous accordion open and shut for the first of the evening's many solos, most of the crowd was won over. This included fans within a decade of my age, who remember Ely's flamenco rock bands of the mid-nineties, or the many, many, many fans many, many, many years older than me, who may remember his leather pants “Road Hawg” period, or his mid-seventies country days, or what he was like when he was a kid or whatever.
A Knucklehead regular sitting near asked, loudly, “Who is this guy? I like him already.”
“Joe E. Lee,” a woman answered back.
One dude in in long, flowing poplin blouse left a couple songs in, but you know what? Fuck him. He was probably all “I don't know about seeing Mr. Texas and an accordion guy play for ninety minutes, especially when I could be at Puffy's white party in the Hamptons.”
Whatever “it” is Guzman brought plenty of it, and more than enough for everyone except maybe the poplin dude. Guzman wails, sighs, and bellows on that accordion, bringing Tex-Mex, rock and badass in every wheeze. When a song needs a sad Texas wind, he squeezes it out. When a song needs clattery percussion on accordion keys, he's got that song's back. And when a song needs a solo that makes you believe in solos again, Guzman's right there behind it, letting that song trust fall into his arms.
A taste: “Letter to Laredo,” which he didn't actually play at Knuckleheads, but that's okay.
Ely's over sixty, now, and he's got those long cheek-creases like Lyle Lovett does. It looks like time grabbed hold of a dimple and yanked it hard. He sings out of the side of his mouth, teeth gritted, but he looks like he's having fun. He told stories, posed a little when people snapped pictures, and seemed as excited playing “Dallas” for the billionth time as he did trying out the anguished “Homeland Refugee,” a stellar new Flatlanders song co-written with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore about nothing less than the reversal of Manifest Destiny. Like the best country songs should, it tells the news better than the news does, hitting on Golden State disasters from wildfires to mortgage crises: “Leaving California for the dust bowl/They took it all there's nowhere to go/the pastures of plenty are burning by the sea/I'm just a homeland refugee.”
Like the rest of the set, it was part country, part ranchera, and part out-of-nowhere Texas weird. Here's how persuasive Ely and Guzman are: in the last verse, Ely sang about smiling and nodding at”refugees from Mexico” and understanding that “We're all the same.”
The Knuckleheads crowd, buzzed and happy beneath neon flags and giant light-up U.S. letters, politely applauded the sentiment.
Random Detail: Knuckleheader Jackie from England, who kind of knows Robert Plant, pointed out that the three youngish, beefy guys who requested the seven-minute cockfighting epic “Gallo del Cielo” stood right up front and shouted every single word right back at him. She also worried that not enough people were dancing, until, during “Dallas,” the least inhibited folks gingerly started. Then, she worried, “He doesn't want to look up and see that.”
Critic's Bias: I love his first three records, and his-mid-nineties high point, and three of his live discs, and half of Dig All Night and Love and Danger, but when I hit the merch table and discovered he's put out three CDs this year, I realized I need some help staying abreast of Joe. Any recommendations?
By the Way: Everyone younger than me at this show was either a) my date or b) with their parents. One girl, who looked about 18, stood with her father while he waited to meet Ely afterwards. When he finally made it up there, and shouted about some club date in 1984, she was texting someone.
Also: The Derailers played, too. Cute.
Blowin' Down This Old Dusty Road
All Just to Get to You
I'm a Thousand Miles From Home
The Road Goes On Forever
Treat Me Like a Saturday Night
All That You Need
Up on the Ridge
Me and Billy the Kid
Wind's Gonna Blow You Away
Row of Dominoes
Slow You Down
(He also sang “Gallo Del Cielo” in there somewhere, but I was a little lit up.)