Next Friday, Feb. 11, the Joe Ely Band returns to Rockefeller Hall for the first time in more than a decade, since the legendary Washington Avenue showcase club stopped presenting live music to focus on the less risky business of private parties and other rental arrangements. Houston's Mike Stinson Band opens the show at 8 p.m.
The event is a fundraiser for the education programs of the Houston International Festival - specifically, the Teacher's Curriculum Guide, which is distributed annually free of charge to approximately 1,500 area schools, five copies per school, each February. The Guide is dedicated to the honored nation or theme of each year's festival; this year's is "The Silk Road: Journey Across Asia."
As it happens, I am the artistic director of the Houston International Festival, and the former music critic at the Houston Chronicle, jobs have given me the opportunity to see Joe Ely perform many times. At the invitation of Rocks Off editor Chris Gray, here are my top five live Joe Ely experiences, as well as I can remember them.
5. Houston International Festival, 2010: OK, you knew it was coming. But if you were there, you know I am not just blowing smoke.
This was a great set, reuniting the red-hot rock band of guitarist David Grissom, Jimmy Pettit on bass and drummer-cum-booking-agent Davis McLarty. Though they may sometimes wish it were not so, Grissom is to Joe what Keith is to Mick: They elevate each other's game. Which I suppose would make McLarty Austin's answer to Charlie Watts -- he hits the skins hard and right on the money. And Pettit would be, um, Bill Wyman? (Hey, Jimmy, it's OK -- he got a lot of action backstage...)
They played the classic late-'80s/early-'90s repertoire from the Live at Liberty Lunch and Love and Danger albums. The crowd on the hill responded with roars of approval. The encore was "Fingernails," a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute, with Marcia Ball - who played the iFest fundraiser at Rockefeller Hall last year -- sitting in on piano and Grissom in full-shred mode. Long live rock and roll!
4. Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, late '90s: Joe was on the bill at Robert Earl Keen's Texas Uprising, sort of a younger, Aggie-fied version of Willie's 4th of July picnic. This was the Letter to Laredo/Twistin' In the Wind era, and the band included Lloyd Maines - the great pedal-steel guitarist from Lubbock who first played with Joe in the late '70s - trading dobro licks with European flamenco guitarist Teye and (unless my memory is playing tricks on me) the late Jesse Taylor, also from Joe's beloved late '70s Lubbock band, on bluesy lead guitar.
It was a great concept - thematically, Letter to Laredo is top to bottom Joe's best album. And Teye was an amazing guitarist. But I think a lot of Joe's fans, not to mention some of his bandmates, were kind of relieved when he went back to wherever he came from. I also remember Maines sitting in on Keen's closing set and ripping everyone a new one with the hottest rock and roll steel-guitar solos I have ever heard.
3. Joe Ely's house, mid-'90s: This informal house concert and backyard barbecue, at Joe's homestead up on the ridge outside of Austin, was hosted by MCA Records during SXSW. Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore came up with Joe in Lubbock and formed the core of the Flatlanders, which had recorded one prematurely alt-country album, More a Legend Than a Band, released only on eight-track in the early '70s.
The three compadres sat around Joe's rustic living room, picking guitars, sharing lead vocals and trading songs. Great songs, one after another, mostly new or at least previously unheard by those of us lucky enough to be there. Of course, an album followed, and the Flatlanders are now more a band than a legend, an established touring and recording act that offers Joe a laid-back, cowboy-hat alter-ego to the hard-rocking, leather-clad Lord of the Highway.
2. 12th and Porter, Nashville, early '90s: I happened to be in Nashville on business and was invited to the album release party for Love and Danger, a great rock and roll record released by MCA's country division. Of course, radio did not know what to do with it, but I still listen to it fairly regularly, and I suspect I am not alone.
The band was augmented by Reese Wynans on keys, who had been playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan prior to his sudden and tragic death, and backup vocalists Jonell Mosser and Ashley Cleveland. Joe himself leaned forward into the microphone stand and sang as if his hair was on fire. For artistic courage and charisma, no Nashville assembly-line karaoke cowboy could compare, then or now.
I have one other odd memory of this night. I was standing next to Raul Malo, who at that time was fronting the Mavericks and wearing a big black cowboy hat. Someone came up to him and asked what he thought of Buck Owens. "Who?" said Raul. "Buck Owens," the guy replied. "I know who Buck Owens is," said Raul. "Who the fuck are you?"
1. Rockefeller's, late '80s: They say there's no time like the first time. I had heard Joe's albums prior to moving to Houston to take the job at the Chronicle. I knew his history - ran away with the circus, toured with the Clash, etc. I remember listening to the Lord of the Highway cassette while driving across West Texas en route from California.
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But the live show easily exceeded all expectations. The closest thing I could compare it to was hearing Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for the first time - sheer rock and roll exhilaration, but with a Lone Star swagger instead of the Jersey Shore strut. The band included David Grissom on guitar, Jimmy Pettit on bass and Davis McLarty on drums - not coincidentally, the same band that will be playing with Joe next Friday.
I went back all three nights, joined by my wife on the second and third nights, and we've seldom missed an opportunity to see Joe play live since.
Tickets for the Joe Ely Band's February 11 performance at Rockefeller Hall, 3620 Washington, can be purchased exclusively online at www.ifest.org. Do not call the club. The 2011 iFest music lineup will be announced from the stage.