JOE ELY at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), tonight, Thursday (February 9), 9 pm. $17.50. 416-598-4753, 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
If your laptop's gone haywire or your fridge is on the fritz, Joe Ely might not be the best guy to call. But if you need to roots up your tribute compilation, Mr. Americana is just the man for the job.
His exceptional versatility at handling everything from gutbucket blues to strummy folk, raging rock 'n' roll, slow-burn ballads and even roof-raising gospel has made him a dependable go-to guy for tribute producers seeking sensitive interpreters who can put their own personal stamp on a song. No matter what Ely sings or shouts, it always sounds like he wrote it himself.
The other big plus that keeps Ely's name coming up is that, as long as the songwriting's up to scratch, he's down for whatever. Whether it's a project saluting Buddy Holly, Harry Nilsson, Otis Blackwell, Merle Haggard or an old-friend like Jo Carol Pierce, he can't say no to a tribute pitch, especially if there's a worthy charitable cause behind it.
That's why Ely has a track on a forthcoming Christmas compilation disc put together by E-Street Band bassist Gary Tallent, even though he's never recorded a Christmas tune before. He just needed to finish cutting covers of songs by Peter Case and Randy Newman for two other tribute discs, and that version of Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Coming Down for Ray Benson's Ten From Texas salute to songwriters from the Lone Star State.
"In the past year, I've probably done eight benefit album recordings for every paying gig I've played," laughs Ely from his home in Austin. "Every time I turned around, someone was calling with another tribute idea. In fact, right before you called I was on the phone with somebody working on a new Kristofferson tribute album who also wanted me to record Sunday Morning Coming Down for them.
"I had to tell them I'd already done it for another album. I'll probably choose another of his songs. It's not like Kris has a shortage of good ones.
"The Christmas album, called To Kate, is a benefit for a little girl in Nashville with a rare disease, and for those kinds of things I'm just glad to be asked. I probably know the first line to every Christmas song ever, but that's about it. So instead I thought of doing Bob Dylan's song Winterlude, from New Morning, which always sounded sorta Christmassy to me. Gary liked the idea, so we went with it."
When Ely isn't recording covers in the studio, he's collaborating with long-time pals like legendary Texas gospel group the Bells of Joy - with whom he just recorded the song Sinner Man for their recent Second Time Around (Dialtone) disc - and his Flatlanders bandmate Jimmie Dale Gilmore, for whom he produced the awesome jukebox country reverie Come On Back (Rounder) that's been nominated for a Grammy.
That should help explain why it's been close to three years since his last studio album, Streets Of Sin (Rounder). But he says he's got loads of new material written (Ely may haul out a few of those tunes at his solo show at the Horseshoe tonight), and he's heading into the studio when he finishes the current road trip.
"I'm just finishing up a loud and brash rock 'n' roll album right now that's just been a ball to record. When the Flatlanders reunited, I sorta jumped back into the folk world that I inhabited when I first got together with Jimmie and Butch Hancock. Since 1999, I've done four albums that belong to that sphere. But over this last year, I got back with my rock 'n' roll friends, and it felt like the time was right to have some fun."
Long-time fans of Ely's work with the Flatlanders will be happy to know there are plans to follow up 2004's Wheels Of Fortune (New West). Hopefully, it won't take another 30 years to get it out.
"We all got together in Austin for a few days to write some new songs. Then, the day after Butch arrived, Hurricane Katrina hit and blew our session away right along with it. We got so carried away with what was happening in New Orleans that every song we wrote was about floods. So we decided to postpone it and try again later."