Friday Night: Hayes Carll, Robert Ellis, and Shovels & Rope At House Of Blues

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This Friday night set effectively set the tone for my New Year's weekend. It was raucous, relaxing, and poignant, shoving us into the new year with a bit of twang and grit - as if I didn't already carry enough in my DNA.

With Hayes Carll closing, Robert Ellis in middle relief, and Charleston, South Carolina country duo Shovels and Rope opening the night, this was easily one of the best bills of the year. It doesn't hurt we had seen these artists maybe a cumulative twenty times in 2011, still leaving for surprises.

The coolest thing about Friday's set was the reverence I saw for the music, not at all the mall-chatter that you get at most smaller venue country shows in Houston. Blame the group's local ties, the inherent musical interest, or people conserving their jaws for Saturday night. Let's go with the first two.

I had seen S&R at the Firehouse Saloon about a year ago when Carll was in the thick of a blitz of Houston shows when his 2011 stunner KMAG YOYO was just seeing release. The man must have played a dozen shows in the area, as far out as his old stomping grounds, Old Quarter out in Galveston.

S&R, made up of husband and wife team Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, was easily one of our most treasured finds of 2011. Sharing guitar and drum duties between each other, ping-ponging seamlessly off each other, with Hearst's Loretta-by-way-of-Holly-Golightly voice a tattered, sugary thing next to Trent's back-porch holler.

Luckily 2011 was the year of the roots duo, with groups like the Civil Wars turning standard big-budget Hollywood country groups on their ears. What the fuck is a session man?

Robert Ellis and the Boys opened their slot with "Westbound Train" from '11 best-of list darling Photographs. Seeing and hearing people discover Ellis still makes me giddy.

"Who the hell is he? Damn! Where is he from? How old is he??" came from a group of guys to my right right in the middle of "Pride".

"He's got that one song about getting pissed at his girlfriend, it's awesome," one man said referring to "No Fun". It was like sitting in on a focus group meeting, and the whole exchange seemed like a good sign to me. I saw them later leaving Ellis vinyl and discs under their arms. Dudes, you should have been at Mango's and Fitz for the past two years or so, it was awesome, too.

A new song, with Ellis onstage solo, called "The TV Song" is a blast of Randy Newman-style storytelling - he's been deep into his catalog - with Ellis fantasizing about solving crimes and having his family life realitized for all. Closing with the bluegrass standard "Ruby, Are You Mad?" served to convert anyone who wanted to speak through his set, burning down the HOB with metallic country and whipping hairs.

Carll's set, which would span almost two hours, washing over the crowd like a great wave, heavy on YOYO and 2009's Trouble In Mind in the best doses, and satisfying to the last drop. Honest to God I saw people raging during "Stomp And Holler" shaking the sillies out where a pit would be a HOB metal show. The song itself reminds me of shooting ice water at passersby at Free Press Summer Fest, including Carll himself after his set.

YOYO shaped 2011 for a lot of people, with the emotions and characters inhabiting it now inextricably linked to this past year. For myself, it was songs like "Another Like You", "The Letter", and "Bottle In My Hand" that affected me the most. I couldn't think of another artist this year, besides Ellis of course, who soundtracked my past year the most.

Of course the night had to end in an heavenly jam, with Carll, Hearst and Trent, and Ellis and Carll's backing band all tackling George Jones' "White Lightning" sending us all out into the street - Dear Lord the humanity - with our heads all swimming on a beautiful liquid high.

Oh hell, just watch. Pardon what is me possibly screaming behind the camera.

Personal Bias: I have a Texas driver's license.

The Crowd: Boots and pearl snaps and maroon and orange. Plus, someone seemed to have waited until Ellis' "Ruby" to smoke their Christmas weed near the soundboard.

Overheard in the Crowd: "What's proper bathroom attendant protocol? Do I give him a dollar just to wash my hands? What if I didn't even pee and I just snorted something and didn't even touch my junk? Am I now paying to do blow at a show? Not that I did." Oh, holidays, you never fail to make my head 'asplode. Random Notebook Dump: What a way to end the full year on Earth.

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