Robert Ellis, The Clarkes Discovery Green September 19, 2013
It feels like Robert Ellis' much-loved weekly local gig came and went a lifetime ago, even though it's only been a couple of years. Since rising to become one of the city's most celebrated performers, though, Ellis has scarcely slowed down, releasing his New West Records debut Photographs, touring with the likes of Old Crow Medicine Show and--most frustratingly--moving to Nashville. Somewhere in there, he managed to find time for a haircut, too.
While the singer-songwriter has put Houston in the rearview, however, he hasn't exactly turned his back on us. Ellis was all smiles on Thursday when he took the stage at Discovery Green to give his most loyal fans a taste of the new music he's been working on for his sophomore effort for New West.
For a while, there, though, it looked dicey that he'd even take the stage at all. After an afternoon of downpours, the park was soaked come showtime, and it was still drizzling by the time openers the Clarkes began their set. Understandably, it was a small, wet crowd that turned out at 6:30 p.m. to hear the husband-and-wife duo, but those who braved the elements were treated to some exceedingly gentle folk tunes performed with a pleasant country twang.
Brandi Belle Clarke showed off some very nice fiddling on the couple's originals, but my favorite song of the set was a cover of Springsteen's "I'm On Fire." Nice and spare.
The rain had eased up by the time the Clarkes finished, but with more clouds looming, Robert Ellis and the Boys hustled onto the stage almost immediately. By then, the crowd had just about doubled in size with more arriving all the time, armed with umbrellas and lawn chairs.
""We're just gonna play as if its not gonna rain and cross over fingers," Ellis told the audience. That seemed just fine with everybody.
He opened with a few older tunes, including the countrified "Westbound Train" and the entirely appropriate "Comin' Home," his nimble, upbeat tale of (mercifully) heading back down to H-Town. Trusty sideman Will Van Horn added tasty pedal-steel flourishes to both.
As always, the downtown skyscrapers helped make the Disco Green stage one of the grandest in town. After distant police sirens provided delightfully urban accompaniment to "Two Cans of Paint," Ellis thanked the crowd for ignoring the weather and told them he had some new songs for them to hear.
Ears pricked up immediately and asses shifted nervously in seats. Rumor had it that Ellis was going to be trying out some new sounds on his forthcoming record, with the word "pop" being bandied about pretty freely. While many fans seemed to have shown up specifically for the new tunes, there was some fear evident that they might suck.
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Well, the new songs were different, but they didn't suck. Country remains the backbone of Ellis' sound, with his clean, nasal crooning sounding just the same as it ever did. New musical elements, from gentle reggae skanks to Simon-esque pop and even psychedelic guitar passages, have been mixed in liberally. I'm not sure there's a name yet for this particular blend of styles, but the new material certainly did not give the impression that Ellis has "gone Nashville."
As the sun set, the band played six new songs. Predictably, the best (and most affecting) was "Houston," Ellis' kiss goodbye to the Bayou City at the outset of a new journey. The hill was silent as he softly sang lines like, "I've got to pick up and wipe the slate clean/ You remind me of too many things," and "This isn't goodbye, you'll be living inside of my heart."
The song ended with a cool psych-guitar freakout that seemed oddly appropriate for this particular plaintive ballad. I found myself wanting to hear more of that sort of thing as the country elements were ramped back up for a closing string of older tunes and covers. The rollicking "Flames of Hell" capped off the set, detailing a few of things Ellis probably doesn't miss about Texas.
Despite the slick haircut and Nashville ambitions, though, Ellis still fits right in in Houston. He may not live on Graustark Street anymore, but there's still some black mud caked on his boots. As with any fond family member, we might not see him as much as we'd like these days, but he'll always have someplace to come home to.
Even -- maybe especially -- when it rains.
Personal Bias: Closest thing to country I've heard all year.
The Crowd: About 200 souls who weren't too fussy about getting their hair wet.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I heard his new stuff sounds different."
Random Notebook Dump: I say this every time I go, but Discovery Green is just a terrific place to catch some live music, even when it's a little soggy.
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