iFest Aftermath: Joe Ely Band Almost Pulls A Michael Jackson

Terry Allen once told Aftermath that Joe Ely was his favorite performer. Allen related that Ely would come over to his house in Lubbock and sit on his couch and try out new songs. According to Allen, it didn't matter if Ely had a full song worked out or was just trying out an idea that wasn't complete: "Whenever Joe played me something, he always played it like his hair's on fire."

Ely, playing with the Live at Liberty Lunch band that were regulars at Rockefeller's in the late '80s and early '90s - lead guitarist David Grissom, bassist Jimmy Pettit and drummer Davis McLarty - didn't set his hair on fire, but he brought it the way he always has Saturday before an adoring throng at the Bud Light Stage.

Ely charged out with his usual energy, starting with the eternally popular "Hard Livin'." Ely's been on the road his entire life, and this song comes straight from his marrow: Part black comedy, part brutal truth. With the band warmed up properly, Ely raced through his most popular material, sprinkled with a couple of rarities: "Lord of the Highway," the epic Robert Earl Keen cover "The Road Goes On Forever," "Letter to L.A.," "Homeland Refugee" (from last year's Flatlanders album Hills and Valleys) and a killer version of "Boxcars."

With the band sweating from every pore, Ely then took it home with over-revved versions of "Cool Rockin' Loretta" and "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta," often yielding to Grissom's commanding, expressionistic guitar passages for moments at a time. Called back for an encore, the band brought Marcia Ball over from the Louisiana stage for a riotous ten-minute boogie-woogie workout on evergreen Ely closer, "Fingernails."

Forget the band, it was a miracle no one else's hair ignited, either.

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William Michael Smith