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Joe Ely: No Frills And Lots Of Sparks

September 13, 1987|DUNCAN STRAUSS

The latest phase of Joe Ely's career confirms that you really can't keep a good man--with a good band--down.

Hailed by many critics as The Next Big Thing a decade ago, the Texas singer-songwriter failed to live up to those expectations, though largely for reasons beyond his control.

The most notable example recently would be toiling on a new album only to have his record company refuse to release it. Ely responded to that blow with great equanimity.

"Instead of being completely (angry) or demolished about it, I just rolled up my sleeves and wrote a new album," he said.

Flourishing in the face of adversity, Ely proceeded to compose some of his best material in years. Then, no longer associated with that record company and not exactly loaded with dough, Ely and his band went right ahead and made a fine new album, "Lord of the Highway."

"We did it completely on our own." Ely, 39, said of the low-budget, no-frills approach. "We'd go buy a reel of tape and just start recording. . . . So it doesn't have the slickness of something that somebody worked on over and over.

"But it also has a spark that I've always tried to capture on record--just the spark of a hot band playing. And this one catches it pretty close."

Ely--who plays Wednesday at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Thursday at the Roxy and next Sunday at Bogarts--always did display a nice flair for understatement. Actually, although Ely has fronted some truly stunning bands before, his current outfit--spearheaded by ex-Rolling Stones sax-sideman Bobby Keys and hotshot guitarist David Grissom--absolutely smokes .

Said Ely, "Every once in a while, in a band, everybody starts reading each other's minds. Something happens, and you don't really know how it happens--you just say look out !"

Of course, Ely himself is hardly a low-voltage performer. At the Coach House last June, he turned in an electrifying solo, acoustic set.

"I started doing a whole string of those (solo shows), and mainly I did it to work on writing," he said. "Being on the road without a band, I was really able to write. All I carried was an acoustic guitar and a ballpoint pen."

The process clearly yielded excellent results. But this isn't the first time Ely has released an outstanding album and toured behind it with an outstanding band. Does he think the outcome will be different--that things might actually click this time?

"Oh, yeah," he replied. "Just in the time the record's been out, it's done better than the ones I did before. It got off to a stronger start and it's still getting stronger, in terms of airplay, sales, number of stations playing it and everything. So I'm totally thrilled ."

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