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Pop Reviews : Pair of Club Dates Show Off Two Sides of Joe Ely

February 08, 1988|CHRIS WILLMAN

Texas-based roots-rocker Joe Ely spent a lot of time tuning his wayward acoustic guitar during a sold-out solo show Friday night at McCabe's.

"Boy, in a place like this, you really hear it," he explained. "I've been out for three months with a loud rock 'n' roll band, and if something's out of tune in a band, you just turn it up."

A few hours later, Ely got to turn it up instead of tune up. He--and much of the same crowd--traveled a few blocks down Pico Boulevard to reconvene for a (yes) loud , full-band, post-midnight show at the equally sold-out Music Machine.

These were distinctly different showcases. The McCabe's set showed off more of the Ely who used to be a country singer, with late-'70s ballad favorites like Butch Hancock's "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me." Mostly, though, he was full of sweet rock bluster even there--making microphones seem superfluous in the small room, and promising how raucous and revelatory the later set would be.

Was it. Over at the Music Machine, backed by a basic three-piece unit (no sax or steel guitars on this tour), the perpetually good-natured Ely frequently leaned over the front of the audience--as is his wont--and coaxed enough enthusiasm to suggest he's just a Rolling Stone's throw away from arena-level greatness.

His current rock 'n' roll, even in a song with a title like "Me and Billy the Kid," is relentless and straight-ahead: Not only can you take Ely out of the country, it seems you can also take the country music out of Ely--almost.

The McCabe's show was opened by a visiting Texan plucked out of the waiting audience: soft-sung charmer Jimmie Gilmore, who has written some of Ely's best material over the years, and whose Ely-produced debut LP is due soon.

Winsome L.A. country queen Rosie Flores (a former Texan herself) warmed up the Music Machine crowd with an even-more-rockin'-than-usual band set. Both Gilmore and Flores joined Ely at evening's exhausting end for one last Texas-derived anthem, Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away."

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