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.