Robert Ellis Is Full of Surprises at The Bowery Ballroom

June 23rd, 2016

Robert Ellis – The Bowery Ballroom – June 22, 2016

If you like stories, The Bowery Ballroom was the place to be last night. North Dakota’s Tom Brosseau, his set filled with “story songs” and stories in between the stories, opened the show. With a guitar, a microphone, an occasional harmonica and enough tales to fill the dilapidated barns of the plains he sang about, Brosseau performed a simple but highly entertaining folk in the tradition of Guthrie and Seeger and a sound that more or less ignored anything that’s come since those guys. The night’s headliner, Robert Ellis, told stories of a different sort: deeply personal, at times, almost painfully so, but fleshed out with a blazing band—textured guitars and pedal steel, a thumping bass and nonstop rollicking drums. To look at them onstage was to look upon a country band—cowboy hats, bolo ties, big belt buckles, pedal steel guitar and Ellis’s suit (well, what more can be said about what he called his “space cowboy” suit other than you had to see it).

Still, despite their decidedly country foundation, Ellis and his band were full of surprises at every turn. Working through material off his newest self-titled album as well as the previous LP, Lights from the Chemical Plant, each song was infused with some extra oomph: from the unexpected, introductory space jam to the show-opening “The High Road” (on which Ellis crooned, half-ironically, “And nobody cares about songs anymore”) to the jazz-funk chord progressions midway through “Pride” to the three-guitar country freak-out on “Sing Along,” which somehow captured (I imagine, at least) the anger, confusion and hypocrisy of a childhood in the Bible Belt. Ellis was incredibly self-aware of the what-genre-is-this conundrum they were playing, explaining that he’d concluded that they were “difficult easy listening,” which more or less summed up the hybrid of ’70s country-rock and free-form jazz-jam on display.

The Bowery gig was the biggest headlining date for Ellis and his band, and they explicitly made clear how excited they were. Interestingly, they used the occasion to not only go big—which they did on multiple occasions—but also to go quiet just as often, Ellis explaining that there were songs they wouldn’t dare play in the opening slot for fear of losing the crowd. The closing third of the 90-minute set showed all facets of the band’s abilities. “Houston” flipped from Ellis’s unique, honeyed croon into a full weirdo jam-out, two guitars chasing each other like squirrels around a tree. Immediately following, the band left Ellis and guitarist Kelly Doyle alone for a beautiful duet on “Elephant,” each lyric and each note on the guitar packing an emotional punch. “Tour Song” took it a step further, Ellis singing solo, verse after verse getting more intensely personal, the room, attentive and appreciative all night, going completely silent. The band returned for a rocking finish, featuring “Good Intentions,” “California” and a “we don’t do encores” closer, “It’s Not OK,” the band firing off an almost ’60s-psychedelic rock-out, ending the night as all good stories do, with a definitive the end. —A. Stein | @Neddyo