A Topo Chico And A Smile: Robert Ellis Is Having Fun As The Texas Piano Man

Robert Ellis the "Texas Piano Man" will perform a solo show at the Heights Theater Friday January 24.
Robert Ellis the "Texas Piano Man" will perform a solo show at the Heights Theater Friday January 24. Photo By Alexandra Valenti
Robert Ellis is having a ball. The Houston native has been non stop touring in support of his 2019 release, Texas Piano Man. The album saw Ellis lay down his guitar and sit behind a piano, clad in a white tuxedo he’s been wearing for most of his tour.

Ellis will be returning to Houston for a very special evening at the Heights Theater Friday, January 24 for a solo show featuring special guests. The audience can expect to hear his new songs with Ellis behind the piano and also his older songs on guitar. “I’m hoping to play a different set than I’ve ever played in Houston and have it be a really special show.”

Ellis gained traction in Houston with his “Whiskey Wednesdays” shows, first at Mango’s and then filling the larger space of the now sadly defunct, Fitzgeralds. Ellis outgrew Houston, increasing in popularity and touring more and more with each new album. He now resides in Austin, and though he’s nearby, his busy schedule doesn’t allow him to play his hometown as often as he, or Houston, would like.

“It was really fun,” he says of his Whiskey Wednesday days. “I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently just having a sense of community. I’ve been touring so much all over the world and in recent months I’ve been really feeling this pull to stay at home and do something on a regular basis in Austin.”

“That thing that we got spiritually from doing Whiskey Wednesdays was really powerful. It was such a good feeling to have a real community of people. It definitely got pretty big and out of hand at times, but at the core of it, it felt like a club. There’s something about it that I really miss and have been trying to figure out how to get back.”

Ellis built his fan base around his authentic voice, impressive guitar skills and ability to transport listeners into his songs. Whether he paints a picture of catching a westbound train or enjoying a cold Topo Chico, Ellis always conveys his sincerity.

“You can tell when somebody is unsure about what they're doing. You can tell when they’re apologizing for it. You shouldn't apologize for the art you make. You should just put it out there and hope that it affects somebody in a positive way,” says Ellis.

"You shouldn't apologize for the art you make. You should just put it out there and hope that it affects somebody in a positive way.”

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Early fans may have trouble disassociating him from his long dark hair and more acoustic sound but Ellis has consistently delivered the unexpected on every one of his five albums. “I think I’ve done a good job over the last four records of not really giving people what they wanted consistently so I think by now they were prepared for it and this is at least fun so nobody said anything about it.”

Texas Piano Man is by far his greatest separation from the typical Texan singer songwriter category at the local record store, but it has only helped Ellis to gain a broader fan base. “We’ve often played shows with Americana and country artists and I'll leave some of those shows just feeling like I didn't make one fan and it was sort of a learning process to find the weirdos that I really kind of fit with.”

A recent tour with another piano man, Rufus Wainwright showed Ellis a clearer picture of where his music belongs.  With Texas Piano Man, Ellis delightfully balances serious subjects while also poking fun. “Nobody Smokes Anymore” playfully snickers at today's excessive politically correct culture and spotlights Ellis’s knack for quick wit.  A visit to his website further proves his sense of humor.
Discussing if he thinks this album will be a defining piece of his artist catalogue Ellis says, “It’s hard to know until you step away a couple of years but with Texas Piano Man, I do feel like personally it’s a lot of progress in terms of I’m having a lot more fun. The album is fun, the shows are fun, and my personal day to day life has definitely improved since this project just because I get to go out there and not always play depressing songs,” he laughs.

Ellis is embracing the character he has created and the freedom it has brought to his artistic expression.  "I really feel like this character has embolden me to do what I want and feel no guilt about it.  That's kind of where I was when I started playing music and I feel like over the years you kind of lose that courage."

When asked is he plans on hanging up his white tux anytime soon for new version of Robert Ellis he says,  "I'm not sure, I'm definitely not going to ever stop having fun with it."

Robert Ellis will perform with Jaime McDell Friday, January 24 at The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Doors open at 7 p.m. $28.
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.
Contact: Gladys Fuentes