August 17, 2018
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.
‘Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes’
3 stars (out of 4)
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