Robert Ellis & the Boys (CD release), Jonny Corndawg Fitzgerald's July 6, 2011
See more Photographs from Ellis' homecoming in our slideshow.
Robert Ellis' record release show last night wasn't short on thrills, from the openers to the closing moments from Ellis and his boys, it was a brief but overtly satisfying homecoming for the touring band before they fly off into the wild blue yonder of the music business outside Houston.
Built around the release of Ellis' New West Records debut, Photographs, Wednesday night was very much a throwback to all those hump days at Mango's and Fitzgerald's, except there won't be one next week to count on, and there was a cover charge at the door.
The things we link to Ellis shows, the classic country covers, the drinking, the church-like fellowship, and the handshakes and hugs all remained.
There were two openers for Ellis last night, the first out the gate being locals Khruangbin, a band which wouldn't be pegged as an opener for Ellis, but made for an interesting appetizer. Was it jam, fusion, or just heavy dope being spit? We can't quite pin it down.
All of those, plus more. Totally instrumental guitar passages, melding blues licks and sturdy drumming.
Now, second opener Jonny Corndawg was a horse of different color altogether. Bringing to mind Johnny Paycheck, Roger Miller, Tom T. Hall, and that uncle in the tight Guy Harvey shirt in the corner, the sometime Middle Brother collaborator churned out songs about angry wives, general health, bikini waxes and dranking. Don't go thinking he's a novelty country act, his picking and songwriting is the real deal Ally McBeal. You need to see the jovial leatherman when he hits Houston again. His gospel was almost too strong for us to bear.
Ellis' stage backdrop was made of vintage country LPs, ranging from Hank Williams Sr. compilations to the first Dwight Yoakam record. The sense of tradition was heavy in the air, thick enough for us to scoop up from our spot in the balcony above the stage. The lighting was considerably more theatrical than we had seen on Ellis and the band as well. The crowd surged towards the front, meaning just a step or two, as the turnout was hefty.
Opening with set staple and Photographs midpoint "Westbound Train," the crowd sat in almost quiet reverence, save the for all-male sewing bees in the back of the room. By the time the song hit orbit, enough people were sprawled out jigging to make more breathing room.
Ellis would admit that the set was heavy on the soft/loud dynamic, with songs like "Two Cans of Paint" mingling with "Good Intentions," and "Comin' Home" bringing up the energy and then mellowing down to a crawl every few songs. Guitarist Kelly Doyle keeps moving to the forefront of the band's sound, doing experimental-sounding things with traditional country structures.
The second set was just like the standard Wednesday shows of old, with the band unreeling the usual set of George Strait, George Jones and Bob Wills covers. The crowd that left at intermission, the great uninitiated and/or sleepy, missed out on the fun, which was a greater treat for those of us who are used to celebrating the middle of the week with the clinks of Lone Star bottles, sweaty scalps, and smile-sore faces.
Personal Bias: Whiskey Wednesdays were like the warm and gooey center to all of our weeks for a good two years. Nostalgia for the recent past? Sure. Seeing a rising star back in town if just for a night? You bet.
The Crowd: The usual crowd Ellis always drew, plus a lot of new faces we hadn't seen before. And boy, did most of them like to talk loud.
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Overheard in the Crowd: Way too damn much.
Random Notebook Dump: You should have been there to get one of the limited-edition vinyl copies of Ellis' Photographs, which were only numbered at 250. No word yet on any more being pressed for now.