It’s hard to imagine a more well-deserved 70th birthday party than the one Joe Ely had on Friday night at the Paramount Theatre — surrounded onstage by lifelong friends, playing songs from the full stretch of his career to an adoring audience that packed the house.
So when a chorus of “Happy Birthday to You” spontaneously rose from the crowd as Ely and his band got set for an encore after a couple of transcendent hours, it was no surprise that everyone joined in with boisterous joy. Ely, who turned 70 on Thursday, thanked the crowd warmly, and answered with a perfect promise: “Live Forever,” the Billy Joe Shaver classic that he recorded on his 2011 album “Satisfied at Last.”
The key to Ely’s continued relevance, as he enters his eighth decade, is that he’s never settled for being satisfied, despite that brilliant late-career album’s title. Even in 2015, on the eve of his yearlong tenure as Texas State Musician, his “Panhandle Rambler” album testified that Ely, who moved to Austin from Lubbock in the 1970s, is still chasing that creative spark and coming up diamonds.
READ MORE: Joe Ely on “Panhandle Rambler” and more
Friday’s set list was a perfectly constructed wonder unto itself, touching on most of Ely’s dozen-plus solo albums as well as the records he’s made with his Flatlanders pals Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. After opening the show with the very first song on his very first solo record — “I Had My Hopes Up High” from 1977’s self-titled album — Ely played two more early-career tunes before inviting Hancock and Gilmore out for a splendid five-song stretch that highlighted the hourlong first set.
The surprise, perhaps, was that while they closed with Gilmore’s “Dallas” (from the band’s legendary 1972 debut, revisited by Ely on his 1981 album “Musta Notta Gotta Lotta”), the other songs all came from the reunion records they did together in the 2000s. It’s a testament to the trio’s songwriting longevity that all four were great choices — especially “Borderless Love” from 2009’s “Hills and Valleys,” which drew thunderous applause for its now especially timely chorus summation: “In a borderless love, there’s no need for a wall.”
The second set’s linchpin was that it surveyed all five decades of Ely’s recording career. Fitting, then, that the band surrounding him onstage also represented every phase along that road. Pedal steel ace Lloyd Maines stretched back to that groundbreaking 1970s Lubbock era, while a core band of guitarists David Grissom and David Holt, bassist Jimmy Pettit and drummer Davis McLarty represented Ely’s late-’80s/early-’90s roadhouse-rockin’ heyday. Accordionist Joel Guzman became a fixture in Ely’s orbit in the 2000s, and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Plankenhorn has taken on a key role over the past few years.
All of them were onstage together for many songs, with the occasional addition of ringer acoustic bassist Glenn Fukunaga and Flatlanders drummer Pat Manske. If you kept an eye on the band throughout the night, a great pleasure was just seeing the delight on their faces at being able to share this moment with Ely: Plankenhorn grinning widely as he played dobro on the Flatlanders’ “Dallas”; Ely and Maines sharing a whisper and a laugh as Holt kicked into a solo on “Cool Rockin’ Loretta”; Maines with a beatific smile toward Grissom during “Me and Billy the Kid.” Everyone up there was loving this.
The second set’s high point was the title track to 2003’s “Streets of Sin,” a slow-burn anthem that Ely stretched out so Grissom, Holt and Guzman could lay down beautiful instrumental brushstrokes. Grissom’s solo in particular was a show-stopper, tinged with a touch of sadness only for the reminder that the late Jesse “Guitar” Taylor, Ely’s longtime sidekick from the early days, couldn’t be here to join in the celebration.
By the time the encore rolled around, it seemed obvious that the Flatlanders’ fellow Lubbock accomplice, Terry Allen, had to be lurking in the wings. Sure enough, after the sterling rendition of “Live Forever,” Ely introduced the artist who had his own grand moment on the Paramount stage just a few weeks ago.
It might have been a setup for Ely’s livewire take on Allen’s “Gimme a Ride to Heaven,” but instead, they smartly just turned toward the classics, raising the roof with a medley of “Not Fade Away,” “Who Do You Love” and “Hey Bo Diddley.” When that wasn’t enough to send folks home, they came back out, this time with Hancock and Gilmore too, for a Woody Guthrie benediction of “This Land Is Your Land.” Even the Super Bowl couldn’t top that.
1. I Had My Hopes Up High
2. She Never Spoke Spanish To Me
3. Honky Tonk Masquerade
4. Waving My Heart Goodbye (Flatlanders)
5. Thank God for the Road (Flatlanders)
6. Right Where I Belong (Flatlanders)
7. Borderless Love (Flatlanders)
8. Dallas (Flatlanders)
10. The Highway Is My Home
11. Cornbread Moon
12. All Just to Get to You
13. Up on the Ridge
14. You Can Bet I’m Gone
15. Cold Black Hammer
16. Dry Land Farm
18. Streets of Sin
19, Me and Billy the Kid
20. Cool Rockin’ Loretta
21. Live Forever
22. Not Fade Away/Who Do You Love/Hey Bo Diddley medley
23. This Land Is Your Land