Tuesday, November 17, 2009

20 Days in November - Day 12: The Flatlanders

Long before the success of the contemporary wave of Texas alt-country acts - many that we have seen the last couple weeks - a troika of talented Texas troubadours toiled for decades - at times under the radar - to finally attain great success in their later years. I am referring, of course, to The Flatlanders: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock. Since the early 1970's these artists have been performing together - singing each others song's or those by the legends of roots music. See Live '72 for samples of their early work together. Eventually they migrated into separate directions - all the while maintaining a kinship - exposed in their solo recordings. Both Gilmore and Hancock provided some of the best material for Joe Ely - specifically "If I Were A Bluebird", "Dallas", "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown", "Standin' At The Big Hotel", "Fools Fall In Love", "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me"..... The list is long. In 1992, the trio regrouped to re-release More a Legend Than a Band - originally recorded in Nashville in 1971 - which included both "Dallas" and "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown". But it wasn't until Now Again that the Flatlanders started generating more and more buzz that continued two years later with the release of Wheels of Fortune. This CD easily supplanted The Best of Joe Ely as my favorite CD from any of these artists. And this year they took time off from successful solo careers to release Hills & Valleys.

I'm not sure when I first heard Joe Ely - but he's been at the top of my favorite artist list for quite a while. Eventually I was introduced to the music of Gilmore at an ACL festival and loved his laid-back style and unique vocals. His performance of "Saginaw, Michigan" earned him several new fans that day. As for Hancock, I've heard him participate in several Ely songs and knew about his success as a songwriter - but never saw him live until the Flatlanders started touring seriously a few years ago. What I like most of his songs, and this also extends to the other two, is that not only do they tell a meaningful story - they also trumpet the dignity of the individual person. Their current CD is filled with samples: “After The Storm”, “Homeland Refugee”, “Love’s Own Chains”....

Tonight was the second time I got to see The Flatlanders at The Birchmere. The first show, they came out for a six song-singer-songwriter routine - where they alternated playing their own material. Then they brought the full band onstage for a raucous evening. Tonight they ditched the songwriter routine and went directly with a full band. What I like best about this approach (the full band) is how easily each artist contributes vocals to a particular song. Sometimes one artist will sing lead and the others contribute harmonies. They started this way with Hancock singing "Hopes Up High" and "Julia", Gilmore "Wildest Dreams" and "Going Away", and Ely a soulful "Neon of Nashville". But they shine when all three alternate singing a verse. This style started with "Homeland Refugee", their timely tale of Californians returning to the dust bowl and "Borderless Love" - which describes their not-surprising view of border fences.

The trend continued for most of the night - interrupted on occasion with Gilmore singing "Wishin' For You" and his son Colin's contribution to Hills & Valleys: "The Way We Are". One of the last songs was a rockn' rendition of "Dallas" - where each artist could preform that song in their sleep - it was effortless. For the final song - they brought opening act Ryan Bingham onstage as well as a surprise guest, local legend Bill Kirchen. They jumped immediately into Townes van Zandt's "White-Freight Liner". This wasn't a surprise since Bingham appeared in Ely's Live Cactus! for this song. Once again each artist sand a verse, with Ely motioning Bingham several times to take lead. Typical Ely unassuming style. Simultaneously, Kirchen and his Telecaster dueled Flatlander guitarist Robbie Gjersoe throughout - a friendly competition that continued into the encore. I thought I could hear shades of "Hot Rod Lincoln". (I am really looking forward to the Bill Kirchen Holiday Show at Jammin' Java on Friday, December 18.) It was a rousing finale. They switched gears during the encore starting with Hancock's "If I Were A Bluebird". Once again, each Flatlander took a verse - that was a special performance. I was hoping to hear Terry Allen's "Gimme a Ride to Heaven" - which they performed at the previous show - but that would have just been extra gravy. Tonight's show is evident that The Flatlanders are still an integral part of the Texas music scene. Fortunately they travel far and wide to spread the word; sometimes even by train.

As stated previously, Ryan Bingham has been touring with the band as the opening act. Rumor has it he met Joe Ely at a July 4th festival and spent the remainder of that evening shooting off fireworks. A friendship was born. I only caught his last three songs but from what I saw, this one time bull rider has musical talent. On the first song - he just cranked away on the acoustic guitar - playing a bit of slide. He followed with "Weary Kind" and finished with Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" - with his gruff voice sounding extremely similar to the original. This is one artist on the rise and I love that he releases his music on vinyl. Way to go. Its time to dig out the record player.

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