Robert Ellis McGonigel's Mucky Duck July 5, 2012
Robert Ellis has a variety of tools.
With his clear and nasal voice, he can communicate powerful emotions in just a few words. He is easily a session-caliber guitar player. But his simple language and sometimes skeletal song structures should not be mistaken for something elementary. There's a lot going on there.
After the local media sang Ellis' praises for a couple of years, we've spent the past year or so saying goodbye, watching him move part-time to Wimberley but mostly going out on the road with a succession of fellow AAA/Americana young Turks like Dawes and Lucero. In fact, he returned to the Mucky Duck Thursday as a nominee for the Americana Music Association's Emerging Artist of the Year award. (Last year's winners? Mumford & Sons.)
Thursday was a chance to see what Ellis has been cooking up since heading out on that almost never-ending tour; the difference between his new material and the songs from 2009 debut The Great Re-Arranger and last year's Photographs was striking. Those songs are stark but gentle ("Westbound Train" "Two Cans of Paint"), with concrete imagery and emotions that can bristle but never boil over. The one exception might be "No Fun," a laundry list of possible fates for the narrator's cheating partner, but Ellis urged the crowd "it's meant to be taken with a sense of humor."
None of those fates would be especially unusual to anyone who knows what country songs were like 30 and 40 years ago (my how times have changed), but Ellis' music is developing a darker streak that can't be explained away with a simple disclaimer.
It came out in the vindictive new "Pride" ("you're just a kid inside a grownup's body"), and an as-yet-untitled song that recounted a vagabond musician's life bouncing from bar to bar as he imagines all the things his woman could be doing with another man back home. Not even anything sexual, but it was still a real wrist-slitter.
But Ellis is also branching out in other ways in his new songs, making them more impressionistic and less tied to the country-folk tradition. The Spanish-flavored story-song "El Paso" came in tendrils of guitar and almost no rhythm whatsoever, the notes twisting around one another or sometimes just evaporating. Another new one, with the refrain "I know your love won't let me down," used an irregular meter and despondent arrangement to conceal a hopeful lyric.
It was very reminiscent of one of Ellis' heroes, Paul Simon, whom he'll open for later on this month in London, as well as one he said he had attempted to co-write with a Nashville songwriter. In the session, Ellis said, "I was made to feel like a bad songwriter -- he gave me a couple of corrections and I didn't make them."
A little later, however, he confessed that he was thinking of moving to Nashville or (gasp) even L.A. After a few objections from the crowd, he said, "It's like, 'don't do anything. Stay where you are."
But no one should be sad to hear Ellis say things like that. Houston may have given him a few welts from the Bible Belt ("Flames of Hell"), but it just isn't the kind of place where Ellis can take full advantage of his talents anymore.
But as a place that shaped him and made him who he is, Houston remains a tool in Robert Ellis' kit. One of the big ones, like a hammer or saw.
Personal Bias: I thought Ellis was one of the most promising young songwriters I'd heard in a while when The Great Re-Arranger came out. He's done nothing to change my mind.
The Crowd: Full house, a mix between scenesters and the supper-club set.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Overheard In the Crowd: Moderate shushing during "I'm Coming Home."
Random Notebook Dump: The show was hardly a total bummer. Ellis dusted off one of his funniest songs, a drinking tune called "Your Good Luck Is Gonna Run Dry" that didn't quite make the cut for Photographs. Hope he brings it back one day.