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Robert Ellis Plays Against Type at Mercury Lounge

February 19th, 2014

Robert Ellis – Mercury Lounge – February 18, 2014

To look at them take the stage at Mercury Lounge last night, Robert Ellis and his band had all the markings of a good country music band. There was a pedal-steel player there; the tall, thin bass player was dressed all in black except for the white cowboy hat; and Ellis’s guitar strap was embroidered with his name in big blue letters. And, yes, they were pretty darn good playing country-flavored rock and roll, but time and again throughout the show, they played against type and transcended genre altogether.

They opened with “Westbound Train,” Ellis’s voice prominent in the mix before the entire band kicked in. From there, most of the set highlighted songs from Ellis’s new album, The Lights from the Chemical Plant. One thing that became clear is that the material is not very happy. “Good Intentions,” about infidelity, featured angry overlapping guitar solos, a short and snappy argument while the steel guitar sadly moaned. The mix of two guitars and a pedal steel seemed to offer an array of sounds and emotions from which to draw. “Pride” had a jazzy bridge with each guitar adding small, melodic pieces to the overall whole. Ellis proved himself to be proficient at both the singing and the songwriting, one of those rare talents blessed with a distinctive voice and the knack for penning songs to perfectly match it. This was apparent on tunes like “Steady as the Rising Sun” and later his solo take on “The Tour Song”—his vocals like sweet syrup to pour over a stack of pancakes.

Still, throughout the night, Ellis went out of his way to highlight his excellent band, particularly Kelly Doyle on Telecaster, who matched Ellis leading the band through several surprising musical twists. “Only Lies” bounced on a shuffle from drummer Dennis Ryan (from Deer Tick) while Ellis and Doyle showed off some deft guitar playing. The highlight of the night was probably “Houston,” which began as another emotional melody and then flipped into an up-tempo jam, guitars and steel expertly zigging and zagging. The end of the show finally strayed from the new album as the band loosened up even more with “Pitching,” an instrumental written by Doyle that was more jazz rock than anything you’d hear in Nashville, and two covers—a perfect take on Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” and a high-energy romp on Richard Thompson’s straight-country “Tear Stained Letter”—that displayed the band’s breadth and skill. The show concluded with what Ellis called a traditional bluegrass tune about growing up in the Bible Belt, “Sing Along.” I don’t know what kind of bluegrass Ellis is used to, but his version opened with several minutes of atypical noise jamming before careening into another genre-busting song. Yeah, I guess for Robert Ellis, that’s what passes for traditional. —A. Stein