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Enjoy the Silence

Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis stands up for piping down.

>The most annoying thing about going to concerts in Houston is not runaway service charges and ticket fees, or even finding a place to park. It's the audiences. For whatever reason, whatever the venue, they can't seem to shut up.

Yes, concerts are a social activity. And if the evening's entertainment is, say, louder than a squadron of F-15s or one of the many tribute bands constantly filing through House of Blues — or their local counterparts at the Concert Pub, for that matter — carrying on a conversation with your neighbors is not that big a deal.

A good rule of thumb is that if your friend or date doesn't have to raise their voice for you to hear them over the music, both of you are probably being rude. Houston got a crystal-clear example of this a couple of weeks ago, when the chatter was so heavy at Warehouse Live that Johnathan Rice, rhythm guitarist for country-soul songbird Jenny Lewis, stopped mid-song to admonish the crowd.

Rice knew exactly which buttons to push too, informing the audience that its counterparts in Austin and Dallas felt no need to converse (or converse loudly, anyway) while Lewis and her band were trying to entertain them. The reaction, first on Twitter and a little later in the comments section of the review on our music blog Rocks Off, was swift, plentiful and predictable — about half said Rice himself should just shut up and play, while the other half (Noise included) endorsed his shushing wholeheartedly.

It's not just touring acts who are fed up with Houston's talkative audiences, either. If you'd rather talk about the Astros or catch up on office gossip than listen closely to Houston singer-­songwriter Robert Ellis's haunting, spare country-folk songs, he will shut you up and shut you down.

"That's the one complaint I have," the 21-year-old Brazosport native says over beers at Catbird's. "When I play out of town, generally people are very attentive and listening to my songs, which is kind of important for singer-songwriters. But I think [in] Houston, everyone kind of wants it to be bar rock and talk over it, which can be kind of discouraging."

At Ellis's CD release for his first full-length, The Great Re Arranger by Robert Ellis, at Mango's last month, one talkative group of friends found out they picked the wrong show for socializing.

"I singled a couple of people out," he says. "There were maybe five people that showed because I guess they'd heard about it, that didn't have any reason to be there. I was like, 'What are you guys doing here? Why are you ruining my show? Go home.'"

Did they leave?

"They left, and then the show was great after that," Ellis laughs.

Ellis is by no means a belligerent fellow. Thin and bespectacled, with shoulder-length locks and a dusting of facial hair, he's also soft-spoken, polite and self-deprecating. When he's not playing, either solo or with one of his several other gigs — he plays drums for fellow­ singer-songwriter Chase Hamblin, bass in blues revivalists Grandfather Child and several instruments in two off-kilter Americana groups, Austin's the Lovely Sparrows and Houston's I Am Mesmer — he teaches guitar lessons at Rockin' Robin, mostly to teenagers.

"I have to teach 'Enter Sandman' and stuff like that, because there's a lot of kids who want to learn that stuff," says Ellis, whose mother was a piano teacher. "But all the metal kids, if I show them gypsy music, they love it and they think it sounds metal. The kids that want to play fast rock, I'll teach 'em bluegrass and flat-picking."

Though Ellis has been writing songs for years and performing in public since his mid-teens, The Great Re Arranger is still an impressive effort for someone so young. Trafficking mostly in relationships — between lovers, family members, people and their surroundings — the songs are mature and evocative, Ellis's quavering tenor the only real clue to his true age. Despite the bravado of the album's title, in songs like "Givin' In" and "Good Intentions," he's all too aware of his own foibles and limitations, and relates them honestly and forthrightly.

A couple of songs pay tribute to the late great-grandfather who acted as a father figure to Ellis, whose mother was a single parent. His uncle was a bluegrass guitarist who sometimes took him along on the festival circuit. Agreeing his songs tend to be heavily autobiographical, Ellis says they usually spring from some memory or other that won't leave him alone.

"I don't usually write unless I'm kind of in a sort of fucked-up mental state anyway," he admits. "Usually the things that I end up holding onto are songs where I was thinking about something heavily. That's probably the reason that most of the stuff that I write about is sad, or reminds me of sad things or important things."

Ellis's models as a songwriter are staunch traditionalists like modern folk mistress Gillian Welch and bluegrass guitar legend Doc Watson, but he knows his songs will probably remind younger listeners of the current indie-folk crop of artists such as Bon Iver, Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes. No doubt this is why he's caught on so quick at places like Mango's, in the same neo-folk scene populated by the youthful likes of singer-songwriter Elaine Greer and groups Buxton and News on the March.

Though he admits there's an influence, ­Ellis says any resemblance between his music and that of, say, Iron & Wine is mostly accidental.

"It's very easy to sound like that sometimes," he says. "Like I think Iron & Wine whispers a lot. He talks really quietly. That sort of thing I try not to sound like, but there was a period I was listening to that a lot before I decided I didn't like it so much."

But older ears are starting to notice Ellis too. He says his phone has recently started ringing with booking inquiries from Anderson Fair, the legendary Montrose venue where Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and many more were once regulars, and where audiences are generally more respectful. For the time being, though, he has some sage advice for people who like to share their thoughts out loud while someone is singing. (Isn't that what Twitter is for these days anyway?)

"You can save the money and go eat and talk to your friends at Denny's," he says. "That [people don't] just kills me." CHRIS GRAY

Grandfather Child plays with News on the March and the Gills, 9 p.m. Friday, July 10, at Mango's, 403 Westheimer, 713-522-8903 or www.mangoscafehouston.com.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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