Robert Ellis Cactus Music March 11, 2014
Something will always be all too familiar any time Robert Ellis takes a Houston stage. Even if he's just passing through, which is the case these days after his relocation to Nashville, his performances here will always be in front of a hometown crowd. He served as our budding scene's backbone for so many years, and now that he's gone a void has yet to be filled.
Ellis has, and has always had, that certain star power you only find in the best. People swarm to him. His talent reaches far beyond a microphone and a set of strings, which our city as a whole didn't necessarily realize, and somewhat took for granted. We didn't know what we were missing until it was gone, but now that Ellis doesn't call Houston home, we cherish those moments he shares with us that much more.
Fresh off the release of his junior LP, The Lights From The Chemical Plant, Ellis stopped in town Tuesday evening for a one-off performance at Cactus Music. With a string of big-name gigs during this week's SXSW music festival in Austin, he and his band gave Houston a nice little taste of what they'll be treating the hordes of music lovers at the music/media mega-event.
Gone are the days of Whiskey Wednesday, where it was a rare treat to hear an Ellis original. Now it's rare to hear a cover at all. Still, it was by far his best career move to hang up the country classics and give the world the stories that the still-young songwriter had swirling around his Lone Star- and bourbon-fueled head.
Chemical Plant isn't too far of a step away from his last album, Photographs, but it is a more polished version of what we've grown to love from Ellis and his Boys. He's grown up and has much more to say, and he says it well.
Whether it's his grapple with the idea of leaving his hometown in the slow burner "Houston" or the similarly themed title track, "Chemical Plant," his material has matured as much as his showmanship, and the combination of the two is that killer combination that should see his easy rise to the top.
"We were told we could play anywhere between three songs and however many we want so we're gonna play for a while," quipped Ellis after a roaring take on his own "Good Intentions." Arriving from Alabama earlier in the day, their stop in Houston was only a brief one as they hit the road to Austin soon after stepping off the Cactus stage.
If I drove for hours on hours, the last thing I would want to do is perform for a packed record store. Ellis didn't even bat an eyelash, and not only did he want to play, but he wanted to continue to play until Cactus' hours of operation made him stop.
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The Boys performed most of the new album in their 75 minutes onstage, and even threw in one of guitarist Kelly Doyle's jazzy originals on a whim. Their take on Richard Thompson's "Tear-Stained Letter" was also a welcome surprise, but seemed to be more for Ellis and the Boys' enjoyment than anyone else's. It was the set-closing "Sing Along" that really stole the show, though, the one song that everyone in that room was assuredly humming on their way out. It's his new, unequivocal show closer, and a damn good one at that. If you're going to send a crowd packing, that song is by far the best and only way for you to do it.
With the long road to Austin ahead of The Boys, they quickly said their goodbyes and packed up the van while Ellis greeted a huge line of record-toting fans and friends with a Sharpie. You know you've come a long way when people are actually lining up for a handshake and a hello. Ellis has that star power. And of course, his voice ain't too shabby either.
Personal Bias: I remember Ellis performing "Still Crazy After All These Years" at the lip of the stage downstairs at Fitz many moons ago, in front of just myself and the sound man. That's when I knew he was going to be a big star. It's very fitting that same cover made it on to his new album.
The Crowd: A ton of new faces, and a few friends that I've been seeing Robert with since his first shows at Mango's.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Even though that haircut is a few years old, it just still really does it for me," said my girlfriend referencing Ellis' shorn look. "Me too," I responded.
Random Notebook Dump: I can't wait for Robert's return to Houston in April with Wild Child at Warehouse Live. That show is going to be the return to the sweaty dance party we've all been desperately craving.
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