Coming up on 30 years since Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock recorded their one and only album — which was released at the time only as an 8-track — this amazing Texas trio proves the open highways they sing about are not always smooth. Their solo careers have had an uncountable number of potholes and missed exit ramps, yet as music-makers they are a joy to watch as individuals and a decidedly American treasure to behold collectively.
Having done friendly gigs over the years in and around Lubbock and Austin, Texas, along with a New York gig last year, this was their first show in L.A.
Loose and engaging, they swap lyrics line by line or verse by verse with a deportment of instinct rather than rehearsed accuracy. Gilmore has the most distinct voice of the bunch, a nasally high-pitched quiver that he uses to hold notes for a disquieting quarter-beat longer than any other singer around. Ely is the shouter and the storyteller, while Hancock covers the panhandle talk-sing twang.
Material ventured all over the Texas map, from Western swing to rockabilly to honky tonk to a pair of Townes Van Zant songs. The Flatlanders unveiled new songs such as the fun-loving “I Thought the Wreck Was Over” and a tune that found a protagonist reporting back on what happened to him on Judgment Day. Recently written songs, including the graceful “South Wind of Summer” recorded in 1998 for “The Horse Whisperer” soundtrack, were given debuts and all were true to each individual’s form: Hancock punches out rhymes reminiscent of early Bob Dylan, Ely crafts stories of lost men in search of redemption and Gilmore examines basic human thoughts and queries. They all like similar imagery — long empty roads, trains, daybreak and hard-hearted women — and approach adventure with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Songs, several of which were performed, have been written for a second Flatlanders album; no word yet on a label deal.
Highlights included Ely’s “I Had My Hopes Up High,” which opened the show with a rousing version of Gilmore’s “Dallas,” and a devilish Ely romping through Terry Allen’s “Gimme a Ride to Heaven,” in which a traveler picks up a hitchhiking Jesus Christ.
Time has never quite caught up with the Flatlanders, as their 30 years of musical pilgrimages have earned them endorsements from punk rockers such as the Clash, Mudhoney and television’s Richard Lloyd along with Bruce Springsteen and virtually every Texas troubadour that has come along since.
Some of their solo records have been gorgeous keepsakes — most recently Ely’s “Letter to Laredo,” Gilmore’s “Braver Newer World” and Hancock’s “East Away the Night” — but Tuesday’s 85-minute outing proved there’s still plenty of magic waiting to be played out.