Like his fellow Texas troubadours Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely is a master of the road song: his terrific new album Letter to Laredo (MCA) is a collection of ephemeral, reflective, and sometimes sad correspondence from a variety of points on the map. Vivid descriptions of the southwest’s stark grandeur, melancholy reminiscences and musings on failed love, tales of hard living, freight jumping, driving expansive Texas highways with no destination: Ely’s highly literate lyrics have explored these subjects previously, but the conceptual framework he hangs them on–reinforced by a few well-chosen covers of tunes by Tom Russell and Hancock–is what stands out. Even more striking, however, is the album’s blustery musical approach, which brings together Ely’s multifarious stylistic quirks into a unified attack. While guest spots by Bruce Springsteen and Raul Malo of the Mavericks are convincing, Teye, a flamenco guitarist from Andalusia, is the most impressive presence, holding together vibrant strains of Tex-Mex, honky-tonk, heartland rock, and blues without shortchanging any of the ingredients. Teye is touring in Ely’s band, along with mainstay steel guitarist Lloyd Maines. Ely’s shows, which demonstrate the appealing patchwork quality of the best Texas music, are notoriously rockin’, and though Ely’s attempt to capture his legendary live energy on 1992’s Love and Danger may have sounded forced, the rolling grooves on the new album are simultaneously elegant and powerful. Opener Jesse Dayton hails from the gulf coast of Texas, and on his impressive debut, Raisin’ Cain (Justice), he confidently leaps like Ely between styles, adeptly traversing R & B, honky-tonk, and some spirited rockabilly. Friday and Saturday, 10 PM, FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Wilson.