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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Joe Ely Ropes 'Em In With Rock 'n' Soul : Veteran Texas singer-songwriter easily outshines the others at Coach House quadruple-header.


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Joe Ely hit the Coach House like a high-plains wind Saturday night, rocking with untamed energy and robust good humor, singing ballads of philosophic depth and poetic grace, and demonstrating a largeness of spirit that temporarily blew away the pervading national stench of politics as egg-throwing.

Politics isn't his concern as a songwriter and song-chooser. But the songs this veteran West Texas roots-rock and country exponent sings, and the unrestrained gusto he brings to his calling, paint an American vision far more attractive than the petty backbiting purveyed at such great expense in so many of our recent political races. In Ely's idealistic ethic, romanticism and anti-materialist values are bound inextricably together. Witness the pumped-up refrain he sang near the end of his show: "Would you settle for love, or do you need all that meaningless stuff?"

Ely (rhymes with "wheelie") played an expansive solo-acoustic show that had nothing in common with refined folkishness; he delivered everything in a voice as sturdy as a pair of Levi's. "My name is Joe Ely and I'm here to rock this joint tonight," he announced near the start, and he made good on the promise with ringing anthems full of big imagery and high ideals.

The set also contained many an exuberant tall tale--to the delight of a rowdy, responsive audience whose whoops and pleas for favorites seemed to spur Ely on. He also gave the hurting and mysterious side of life its due in haunting ballads and tense meditations.

As he always has in a recording career that stretches back 17 years, he interspersed his own songs with excellent selections from a coterie of Texas compatriots who are so closely allied that one hardly can be thought of without the others. The one-hour, 45-minute show included songs by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen and a relative newcomer, Robert Earl Keen--writer/performers who along with Ely have helped make Austin a roots-music center of earthy vitality and adventurous individualism, a sort of denim-clad, dusty-booted Athens set against the Roman commercial bazaar of Nashville.

Ely didn't play anything from "Songs From Chippy," the excellent recent album with which he and others from his musical circle provided the music for a play based on the diaries of a Depression-era prostitute who worked the oil district of West Texas. Let's hope that plans for a 1995 touring revue of "Chippy" come to fruition.


He did debut a few new songs. "All Just to Get to You," one of several titanic romantic anthems that made it into the set, is a new companion to such older songs as "Sleepless in Love," "For Your Love" and "Settle for Love." Like U2, Ely has the fervor to pump his anthems full of conviction. But he goes Bono one better by at least sometimes giving earthy ballast to his soaring passions.

In "Sleepless in Love," humorous similes along the lines of "She was tender, soft as a Kmart pillow" give a playful, textured slant to conventional rock romanticism. It lets Ely wink at his own pumped-up conceit of two lovers breaking all bonds, but it also makes the point that ordinary lives revolving around the Kmart aisles, gypsy car lots and recreational vehicles that pop up in the song can scale extraordinary heights of passion and romance.

Ely has built his reputation as a fiery performer with hard-charging bands in which he shares the spotlight with excellent lead guitarists. Playing solo, however, he was in no need of a hot, string-bending sidekick: In addition to his customary boisterous strumming, he flew into guitar solos of his own that perfectly complemented his robust, let-it-fly performing approach.

Playing some of the least fastidious good guitar imaginable, he would venture off on unpredictable sallies during which he seemed to have no firm idea where his fingers were heading--trusting, like the personas in many of his songs, that he could make it through on sheer nerve. Score one for nerve (supported, no doubt, by a good deal of practice).

The show peaked with an encore made up of three songs drawn from his 1978 album, "Honky Tonk Masquerade."

"Boxcars," a Butch Hancock song, is the dark, searing contemplation of a man who stands by the railroad tracks, his life at a breaking point, wondering whether he should jump onto a train--or under it. Ely finished with intense hammering on his guitar that brought the song to a resounding, dramatic climax.

Instead of exiting to the ensuing standing ovation, he followed with an excellent ballad lament, "Because of the Wind," that uses simple nature imagery and an aching melody to pose unanswerable questions about why life bends us like trees in a gale. He finished on a rocking upbeat with "Fingernails," a raunchy ode to the wild-eyed rocking spirit embodied by Jerry Lee Lewis.

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