It's generally easy to tell in the live setting when a performer is mailing it in and when a performer still cares and remains engaged with the music he is creating. Friday night at Fitzgerald's, even in his fifth decade of releasing recorded music, Joe Ely proved resoundingly, once again, that he is most certainly an example of the latter as he kicked off the first of a two night stand in west suburban Berwyn.
From his country influenced work with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock as The Flatlanders in the early seventies, to his punk dalliances with Joe Strummer and The Clash in the early eighties, his collaboration with flamenco guitarist Teye in the nineties and throughout the course of the rocking country that often defines his vast body of solo work, Joe Ely has always worn his influences on his sleeve, seldom, if ever, disappointing.
From the opening notes Friday of "All Just to Get to You," it was clear immediately that Ely still loves what he does. Having just celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday, Ely closed his eyes periodically during the song, appearing to really take in the response of the crowd, a grin appearing on his face throughout.
"What a treat it is to be in Berwyn... A place I call my second home." As the crowd chuckled, Ely added "It feels like it!" And while certainly humorous, it's not farfetched. Ely has a longstanding relationship with Fitzgerald's, dating all the way back to the scorching 1987 live set captured at the club and documented on the 2008 release "Live in Chicago" (sometimes Rolling Stone Bobby Keys joins the band on sax).
Fronting a four-piece band on vocals and guitar (acoustic-electric for the most part), Ely was joined by guitarist David Holt, bassist Jimmy Pettit and drummer Davis McLarty.
The band slowed things down for the third track of the evening allowing each member ample time to stretch out on "Streets of Sin" but picked things back up shortly thereafter.
From June's Satisfied at Last, "The Highway is my Home" (an apt song title for a road warrior like Ely) featured one of Holt's best solos of the night. Ely is the type of performer who, with such an impressive catalog, can often fall victim to audience backlash when it comes to playing new material live. But Friday night, that wasn't the case as newer material was well-received. "Mockingbird Hill" featured one of my favorite lyrics of the night: "I could use a double whiskey but it would not save my soul."
"Hard Livin'" is a great example of the way that Ely infuses his country music with a hint of the blues. The verses were sped up while the choruses slowed down to give the song a bluesy stomp. Holt's playing was consistent, never overwhelming, as he picked his spots nicely.
Following an acknowledgement of The Flatlanders' fortieth anniversary, Ely reached back to 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade for "Boxcars" (a song written by his onetime roommate and Flatlander bandmate Butch Hancock). The song was easily one of the show's highlights as the band channeled Crazy Horse while Ely himself stepped up with some of his finest guitar work of the night. The crowd may have talked over Joe's intro but the band shut them up quick.
And the hits continued to roll as "Dallas" came next and was clearly the crowd's favorite. With a bassline not completely unlike that of blues standard "Sweet Home Chicago," the song really cooked live. However, Jimmy Pettit's best work of the night came during the second encore as the bassist channeled John Entwistle, playing his ass off under the beat on "Me and Billy the Kid."
While Ely closed out the main set with a version of Robert Earl Keen's "The Road Goes on Forever," it was another cover that ended up being my favorite moment of Friday night's ninety minute set.
While from Amarillo, Texas, Ely nevertheless grew up in Lubbock, Texas... also the home of the great Buddy Holly. Obviously an influence on his music, Ely has even played with former Cricket drummer Jerry Allison. So it was appropriate when Ely covered Holly's "Well Alright."
And while the show didn't quite go on forever, the party most certainly showed no signs of ending as Ely took pics and stopped to chat with anyone who stayed. Simply put, Friday night's show was most certainly alright.