Pop / Joe Ely The Mean Fiddler, London

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In West Texas, country, blues and Tex-Mex saunter in from neighbouring states to meet up and hoe down. This is the only place on the planet that could have come up with the melodic melting-pot we know as Lyle Lovett. The similarly weasel-faced Joe Ely has been going for longer, but for less reward. Umpteen albums, yes, but no Hollywood (ex-)wife for him. You'll never see him headlining at the Festival Hall, and wouldn't want to. He belongs in the Mean Fiddler, which is the closest London gets to a broiling juke joint in Austin - a tight, wooden pressure cooker where so long as the live act makes the right noises, the atmosphere sizzles satisfyingly. No chance of Ely making the wrong noises.

In one of his previous demonstrations of eclecticism, he allowed himself to be briefly adopted by the Clash. His latest wheeze, aired on his thrilling new album Letter to Laredo, was caused by a sojourn in Andalusia, whence he returned under the twin influences of Lorca and flamenco. Teye, the traditional guitarist he subsequently hitched up with, is from Holland of all places: you can tell he's not the genuine article because his mousy sideburns curl backwards in deeply unhispanic fashion. But from the evidence of the show's strutting acoustic opening, he would appear to be fluent in his adopted idiom. "Ranches and Rivers" and Tom Russell's cockfighting epic "Gallo del Cielo", two mournful narratives of the type Ely loves to wallow in, both invite Teye to thrum himself silly.

The set shifted to a combative phase with the entry of Jesse "Guitar" Taylor, a Sherman tank in Brylcreem and leather waistcoat who looks like the victorious veteran of a thousand bar brawls. As he thumped out glowering blues licks in counterpoint to Teye's lyrical flamenco, it was like listening in on a passionate debate: the motion, "Electrification has done the guitar a world of bad."

After a pitched battle over "I Saw It In You", "Run Preciosa", "St Valentine" and "Letter to Laredo", electricity won out: Teye retreated to lick his wounds, and Jesse triumphantly stole the microphone to thunder through "Gangster Rock" (shades of Keef: his singing isn't a patch on his playing).

Ely, favouring an acoustic guitar for his own use, refereed this pitched battle with good cheer: after all, tussles between styles is the point of him. Out of nowhere, towards the end he whipped out a mouth organ and decorated "All Just To Get To You" with a fizzing solo lasting a few seconds. An accordion showed up for a tune or two, too: nothing like keeping you on your toes, even as they tap.

Having performed the new album to the limit, Ely turned to pastures old. This was the singalong section, with built-in gradations of difficulty. "Oh Boy", probably the most famous anthem to come out of Ely's native Lubbock, was a cinch, although by this stage a somewhat lubricated audience would have had problems enunciating the surreal blues lyric, "Did you ever see Dallas from a DC9 at night?" Answer, in most cases, no: but you couldn't have got closer to a man who has.

JASPER REES

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