Joe Ely Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto ON - February 9, 2006

By happy coincidence, it was Texan troubadour Joe Ely's birthday the night he performed as part of the legendary Horseshoe's 58th anniversary. That helped fuel the warm feeling inside the not-quite full club that persisted through Joe's two sets. Ely had been in town just a few months earlier, playing alongside Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and John Hiatt, but the rare chance to see him in an appropriate honky-tonk setting was welcome. Keeping the crowd's attention as a solo artist here can be a problem, but not for an artist this engaging and experienced. I saw Joe and his ace band win over a crowd of English punks opening for the Clash in 1978, so nothing intimidates him. It would have been nice to hear a band flesh out some of his songs, but Ely's vigorous and fluent acoustic guitar playing added all the backbone required. His voice lacks a wide range but its strength, and intrinsic honesty, is an ideal vehicle to convey the narrative songs he favours. His early, brave attempt at performing a song he'd never done live was sabotaged by a broken string, but his comic take on the Bonnie and Clyde saga was still appreciated. He joked that, "it's part of my outlaw suite," and naturally he played his arguably best-loved song, Robert Earl Keen's "Me and Billy the Kid," later on. Between tales of once forgetting the name of his hotel after a night at the Horseshoe and anecdotes of Townes Van Zandt also went over well. Joe is a fine songwriter and originals like "All Just To Get To You," the classic "Bluebird" and the stark "Carnival Bum" were highlights. He also covered gems by his Flatlanders comrades Jimmie Dale Gilmore ("Treat Me Like A Saturday Night") and Butch Hancock ("Bluebird"), Van Zandt, and Tom Russell ("Gallo Del Cielo"), while the Buddy Holly classic "Not Fade Away" was his final encore song. A magical musical evening that reaffirmed one's faith in the power of a man, a guitar and great songs.