Saturday night, I made the trek up the NJ Turnpike to the big city to see The Flatlanders play at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. This was my first time setting foot in Carnegie Hall; not once in my 8 years living in New York City did I make my way there. The pretentiousness was not as stultifying as I feared it might be, although I imagine the Stern Auditorium is a different story. The nature of the act also offset any snootiness: Texans are not known for that, and there were plenty of Texans in the audience on Saturday night.
This was my first time seeing any of The Flatlanders' principals--Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock--play live, to say nothing of the trio. I can't remember how I first learned about their music. I remember hearing JDG sing "Jesus Christ" for one of the Woody Guthrie celebrations about a decade ago and being impressed, and I recall WFUV playing "Julia" from the Now Again album quite a bit when it came out in 2002. On a whim, I bought a used copy of Joe Ely's Live at Liberty Lunch (1990) at a record store in Montague, MA, back when I lived in Pioneer Valley, and I spent a lot of car rides listening to it. But not as many as I spent listening to JDG's album Spinning Around the Sun (1993), which was my music of choice last year, as I drove from Portland to Brunswick 3 or 4 days per week. I've grown to love that album without limits; it's perfect, song for song, arrangement for arrangement. I also heard the Flatlanders' album Wheels of Fortune (2004) while living in the Valley, and I fell in love with it immediately. I love Now Again (2002) almost as much.
On Saturday night, the Flatlanders performed a mixture of new and old material, but the phrase "new and old material" has little meaning when it comes to these guys. Their first official album release from 1990, More a Legend than a Band, comprised songs originally recorded in 1972, and their most recent album, The Odessa Tapes (2012), was also recorded in 1972. Many of the songs on both of those albums have been recorded by one or more of the principals since 1972, sometimes several times over. I recognized as many as half the songs, but not a single song was anything less than satisfying. The opener was "I Had My Hopes Up High," which, I later learned, Joe Ely recorded for his first solo album back in 1977. I had never heard it before, and I loved it so much, I was sorry for it to end. For the first half dozen songs, pretty much everything was uptempo, from the sly, silly Butch-led "Baby Do You Love Me Still?" to the JDG-led "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye" to Joe's "Not That Much Has Changed" and Butch-led "Julia" and Joe-led "Homeland Refugee." After that, the backing band left, allowing the principals to sit on stools and strum and pick on their acoustic guitars, before the band returned for another half dozen or more songs.
The acoustic segment of the program was extraordinary in its beauty, restraint, and conversational looseness. Transcendence was achieved immediately, by way of Butch Hancock's "Danglin' Diamond." This performance I can only describe as indescribably beautiful. The song was barely even there; only the feeling of time having passed and opportunities taken up and forgone. Joe sang lead on Jimmie's "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," one of the most beautiful songs ever written, complex in its simplicity (whereas Butch insists on simple complexity). Butch sang his own "If You Were a Bluebird," which I'm used to hearing Joe sing. Overall, they performed six songs in the acoustic set--two rounds of round-robin--interspersed with some chat about the old days. Joe was particularly poignant, talking about his rambling around Texas and the rest of the continent after the group's demise in 1973. He first made it to NYC in the winter, sometime in the mid-1970s, panhandling in front of Carnegie Hall, making that the first time he played at Carnegie Hall, although this was the first time he'd ever played "in Carnegie Hall." After the sextet of songs, the band returned to the stage, and the trio began a slow, acoustic version of "Dallas," before the band kicked the song into gear after the first verse.
One of the unexpected pleasures was the guitar playing. Not only did the band have a hot electric guitar player--Robbie Gjersoe, who tore off solo after solo with obvious joy--but Joe Ely had his time in the spotlight too. Of the three principals, he is the one who has spent the most time in a rock n' roll spotlight, and it showed. He had some tasty leads during the acoustic portion of the show in particular.
But it was the songs that ruled the day on Saturday night, along with the overall feel of command and authority that is so difficult to define or anticipate but which is immediately identifiable when you hear it. Joe preceded "Homeland Refugee" with the story of the song's inspiration: a child of Texas natives who'd fled to California, looking for work after the dustbowl years of the 1930s, returns to Texas, a state that the child had never known. As it happens, I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the children of Albanians living in Greece who, in the wake of the current financial crisis, have "returned" to Albania, a country they've never known. I was also delighted with "Pay the Alligator," one of the silliest songs in the Flatlanders' cannon and, to finish off the set, the standard "Sitting on Top of the World." That last one was performed uptempo with some hot electric guitar solos, which is the most common way of performing that song these days. Chris Smither has claimed that song as his own, having extracted the pain and suffering from the lyrics and laying them bare. But it sounded just fine as a rocker on Saturday night. During "Thank God for the Road," the gentleman seated to my right exchanged satisfied glances with me, as Butch sang of "shoulders to cry on." By the time the band encored with "Midnight Train," I already knew that this was the best night of live music I've enjoyed in over a year.