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Joe Ely, Jesse Malin

Club Congress, Thursday, June 29

Tom Russell's "Gallo del Cielo" is a complex character study. How can you sympathize with a guy who, having come out on the wrong side of the Mexican revolution, steals his family's best fighting cock and hightails it north to pit it against a series of California's finest--his greed and lack of common sense eventually causing him to lose all when he has the thing fight, knowing its beak is cracked? You want to throttle the jerk for betting the whole hacienda on the heart of one beleaguered little beast, but your eyes will well with tears for him every time.

That's never truer than when Joe Ely sings "Gallo del Cielo" solo acoustic. All by itself like that, the song leaves you no place to run, and the force of its humanity is all but unbearable. We are flawed, flawed creatures, trying to do the right thing, but with ever-misfiring moral equipment. Ely has a repertoire full of self-penned examples, too, and Thursday, they ran the gamut--the everyday paranoid in "I'm on the Run Again"; the gambling fool in "Run Little Pony"; the hapless, lovebound fugitive in "Letter to Laredo"; the misguided son of a hardscrabble cotton farming family in "All That You Need," preceded by a rap on rain prompted by the tantalizing stormlet earlier in the evening. Ely knows the desert, and he loves it for all its fearsome inhabitability.

But there was also the borderline erotic ode to a truck stop waitress, and the deadlier, R-rated passion of the homicidal whore in "Behind the Bamboo Shade," a crowd favorite. And then there was the love-hurt ricochet of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night," which Ely's made his own since the '70s.

An otherwise fine opening performance by neo-troubadour/ersatz glam-rocker Jesse Malin, loaded with well-crafted songs from his forthcoming release, only underscored what has made Ely such an exceptional, lifelong performer. Ely's poise, vocal dynamics and inventive guitar playing invest each song with the sort of three-dimensional character that can transport you into his stories of hard lives lived precariously, and sometimes ingeniously, in intractable circumstances.

Looking around the room at the mostly well-heeled, middle-aged crowd, seated quietly in Club Congress' cabaret setup, I couldn't help but think we were all tourists in Joe Ely's working-class world. Perhaps he is, too. But there simply is no better tour guide.

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