Wednesday, August 22, 2018

'The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle' review: Where it all began for Joe Ely

August 17, 2018
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When the Clash started kicking around with Joe Ely in the late ’70s, they were drawn to this West Texas wild card who didn’t like rules. Ely was a singer-songwriter from West Texas, which meant he fit in quite naturally with the outlaw country movement that had emerged with his Austin neighbor Willie Nelson at the forefront. But Ely was also drawn to rock, Tex-Mex, Cajun and Beat literature, and didn’t much think of or care about music as a business.
“Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes” (Rack ’Em Records) documents the artist’s formative years as a solo act. After his one-of-a-kind band, the Flatlanders, imploded, Ely ran off and joined the circus. He took care of llamas, stallions and “the world’s smallest horse” for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. After one of his charges kicked him and broke three ribs, he returned to Texas to recover and began working on songs, some of them written by his old Flatlanders pal Butch Hancock.
“The Lubbock Tapes” come from two demo sessions. The first, in 1974, shows Ely in thrall to honky tonk, putting his own twist on the type of two-steps that would keep a crowd dancing on the sawdust floor of a big Texas roadhouse. Curley Lawler from country-swing giants Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys adds violin to “Winds and Waterfalls,” and it’s just fine for what it is, but not truly distinctive. Where Ely really made his mark is with songs such as Hancock’s “Standin’ at a Big Hotel,” in which a drifter much like Ely meets his match “in the wilds of Hollywood.” With its surreal twist on Western outlaw mythology, the song caught the ear of established hitmakers such as Jerry Jeff Walker, among others, and earned Ely a long look with the major record labels seeking to make their mark in the expanding country market.
Ely found himself signed to MCA, and most of the songs on “Full Circle” are scattered throughout his first handful of excellent studio albums for the label. When the second batch of demos on this collection were recorded in 1978, Ely had established his sound, a merger of rock and country that took the experiments of the Flatlanders a step further into a realm of its own — somewhere between the mainstream rock of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and the rebel country of Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but not really beholden to either genre.
By this time, Ely’s band had added Jesse Taylor on guitar and Ponty Bone on accordion, and the innocence of the earlier recordings gives way to the darker hues injected into Hancock’s “Fools Fall in Love” and the darn near flamboyant rage that burns through “Down on the Drag.” For Ely a wider recognition of his talents was on the horizon, but the foundation for his “discovery” had already been built. These demos give us a glimpse of the young Ely as he was figuring it all out.
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.
Twitter @gregkot
‘Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes’
Joe Ely
3 stars (out of 4)


By Jim Hynes
August 16, 2018
8/10 Stars
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Joe Ely sounds like a Texas version of honky-tonkin’ Hank Williams in these first set of countrified outings captured on Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes, but as it unfolds his rock n’ roll persona comes to the fore as well. It’s a look back to the genesis of Ely’s solo career. Keep in mind that the iconic trio Flatlanders, with his buddies Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, had failed to catch on in the early seventies. Ely tried his hand in folk clubs and coffee houses before joining the circus; only to have a horse kick him in the ribs. So, dispensing with Nashville and New York, Ely returned to his hometown of Lubbock, TX and looked to its greatest musical hero, Buddy Holly, as a role model.
Ely wrote some new songs, polished off some old ones, borrowed a few from his pals Gilmore and Hancock, and tiring of solo gigs, set out to form a band. In the early ‘70s bands were only welcome in dance halls and large honky-tonks in West Texas. Ely’s first ban member was Rick Hulett on guitar and fiddle but Lloyd Mainer, who even then was the consummate producer for country sessions, joined on lap and pedal steel and Don Caldwell, who owned his own Caldwell Studios in Lubbock (where these were recorded), added his sax.  Greg Wright (bass) and Steve Keeton (drums) formed the rhythm section. After playing relentlessly, the band began to draw crowds and pack some good-sized venues.
This is an album in two parts. The first half are sessions from 1974 that paved the way for Ely’s debut on MCA Records, three years later. Liberation from standard acceptable dancehall fare came a bit slowly but kicked in once Maines made his pedal steel a lead instrument, capable of melody and not just weeping support. Curly Lawler from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys sat in for the opener “Windmills and Water Tanks.” Ely nods to the dancehall fans with “Joe’s Cryin’ Schottische,” a schottische being a dancehall requisite. The lovely ballad “Because the Wind” appears in later recordings of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders. But, the big break came with Butch Hancock’s “Standin’ at the Big Hotel,” which drew interest from Jerry Jeff Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band” and became the impetus for Ely signing with MCA.
The second part of the album are sessions from 1978 in preparation for the Joe Ely Band’s third album for MCA, Down on the Drag. This is the Joe Ely Band of Clash fame, comprised of sizzling guitarist Jesse Taylor and accordionist Ponty Bone. Ely says, “You can hear it going from a real honky-tonk sound to a harder edge. The song was still telling a story, but Jesse was cutting loose, and he Lloyd were playing these screaming solos together. I don’t think that was captured on the studio version of Down on the Drag. You can hear it on The Lubbock Tapes.” This blue-infected rock n’ roll melded with twang became Ely’s signature style leading to his popularity as a live act not only in Texas, but across the pond. Ely fans will certainly recognize many of these tunes like “BBQ and Foam,” “I Had My Hopes Up High,” and “If You Were a Bluebird.”  Despite the radio dilemma of “too rock for country versus too country for rock,” Ely forged his signature style, and has become an iconic figure among singer-songwriters.
Ely recounts, “I was surprised the tapes existed. Lloyd had a box in his barn that he had moved about five times. Lloyd’s always calling me about tapes that he’s found. One day he called and said he’s found these.” Ely, an artist with a five decade career, found it “well-worth the the forty-year wait hear these tracks, even though hardly anyone realized that until right about now.” Perspective is good; not ony for Ely but for the rest of us too.

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