Robert Ellis’ debut album with New West Records, Photographs, is armed to the teeth with sweet pedal steel, twangy solos and cheatin’ lyrics. Most of the record sounds like a barefaced tribute to Tootsie’s on Broadway. So you’d think that on his schedule of tour dates, Mercy Lounge in Nashville, TN would have a special glow around it — wrong.
Photographs is a sure winner. It is soft, subtly timeless, and warm. Most of it translated to the stage well, besides the omission of some crucial vocal harmonies and a drummer with a misguidedly brushless 1990’s angst. But most curious was the disregard of how significant Robert Ellis’ presence was in Music City U.S.A., the nexus of every artist whose inspiration is vividly apparent in his music. For his cover of Don Rollins’ The Race is On, Ellis offered absently, “Oh, this is Nashville. You guys’ll like this one.” And boy did we — they played a killer version. Not coincidentally, George Jones is mentioned in almost every available concert review of Robert Ellis; like Ellis himself, Jones is a Texas native with a bold voice who made the trek to Nashville and shared his music on legendary stages. How bizarre, then, that for the entire show the band gave the impression they were just playing any old place.
But what a great set. The boys are all pros, the songs are all strong, and Ellis’ singing voice is both unique and familiar. At twenty-two, Ellis is off to a great career start. He’s got a solid band, impressive songs and true spirit. There’s much respect to be had for the outlaw approach to Nashville’s music industry: if Ellis is skeptical of a town notorious for processing art through auto-tuners down in the studios on Music Row, it’s more than understandable. But you can’t deny Nashville’s relevance. Kids these days…
Photo by Isaac Darnall