At Shank Hall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Shank Hall found itself transported to West Texas for 90 minutes on Saturday night, thanks to a strong solo set by Joe Ely. A personal tour of his home state is what Ely promised at the outset, beginning with the first original song about Texas he thought worth keeping, “Because of the Wind.”
Rivers, highways, coyotes, border crossings, and the wide night sky all played a part in this Lone Star travelogue. Themes frequently returned to Texas truck stops, and especially the waitresses who work there.
Joe Ely acknowledged his association with the early 1970s group the Flatlanders, but tried to defuse the mystique a bit: “We played six gigs together, and two of those were weddings.” Even so, when requests came for a song by former bandmate Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ely seemed happy to play “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown.”
Most of the numbers were blues based, but Joe Ely’s guitar skills made each song distinctive. Ballads were particularly suited to his voice, and the night included strong performances of “Letter to Laredo,” “The Highway is My Home” and “The Road Goes on Forever.” Ely has recently unearthed a 1985 studio recording of “Where is My Love,” which he sang with Linda Ronstadt. This Randy Banks song has been in Joe Ely’s repertoire for decades as a solo artist, and the strength of this number demonstrated why Ely wanted to have this newly discovered duet recording made available.
A trio of numbers by fellow Texas songwriters closed the evening. Joe Ely romped through Gilmore’s nighttime view of “Dallas,” contemplated the unknown with Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” and ended with Townes Van Zandt’s song of the road, “White Freightliner Blues.”
Joe Ely got his audience back from this West Texas tour in time to enjoy Memorial Day celebrations in Milwaukee. Even so, I’m ready for a return trip.
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