Review: Joe Ely breaks out gems during pandemic

Joe Ely broke out some gems for “Love in the Midst of Mayhem.”

Joe Ely decided to ride out the pandemic pandemonium by looking out at all the love — the love for his lover, the love for others, the love of compassion, and even the love that failed.

Secluded with his wife in their home in Lubbock, Texas, Ely did what he does best — he wrote songs. But this time he searched his desk for gems that had yet to see light of day, and that would reflect well on this novel event we’re all sharing in. For “Love in the Midst of Mayhem,” He found quite a batch, begun as early as 1972, and buffed them to a fine finish. A large assembly of his great band mates from over the years fleshed them out from over the net, and this largely acoustic, absolutely magnificent album resulted.

Ely’s guitar and Joel Guzman’s accordion light up “Soon All Your Sorrows Be Gone,” and instantly, a vivid sense of the Southwest that defines Joe Ely ensues. Ely’s the man who brought Texas-styled country and Texas-sized rock ‘n’ roll overseas to the Clash during punk music’s 1980s heyday. Each artist learned a thing or two. Although none of that high energy is present here, every bit of Joe Ely’s beautiful, relentless spirit is.

From that deeply reflective beginning to the ending “Glare of Glory,” with its carnival-like musical twist (Ely did a stint with Barnum & Bailey way back), every song seems to flutter to earth because of the wind across the vast plains, all spicy and perfectly formed. Although “Garden of Manhattan” takes place in Ely’s mind’s eye of New York, the music feels like riding into an old desert town, dusty and moody and blue. Ely sings of the downtrodden in a voice devoid of age and full of wisdom and intensity. An urban scene of homelessness, and of labeling too, also infuses “A Man and His Dog.” Not surprisingly a recent composition, that song hits its mark hard with righteousness coupled with beautiful tenderness.

“All You Are Love,” written with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, his partners for nearly 50 years in the Flatlanders, is a premier love song awash in Joel Guzman’s gorgeous accordion. “Cry” is the antithesis — tough music and tough skin-regret of a bad move.

In his 73 years, Joe Ely has made quite a few fantastic records. Sit in a chaise lounge outside an Airstream parked in the middle of the Western nowhere heat with a dripping cold beer in hand and listen to his latest batch of fantastic. Or at least imagine that.  

— Tom Clarke 

  • Joe Ely
  • ‘Love in the Midst of Mayhem’
  • Label: Rack ’Em Records
  • Release: April 17, 2020

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 23 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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