In a show that was made up of equal parts humor, touching stories and superior musicianship, the Southern Troubadours in the Round assembled on a stage inside Pantages Theater Saturday night March 14.
This trio of musicians that make up this supergroup consists of Joe Ely, a Grammy winning Texas singer-songwriter-guitarist, and is known as one of the architects of Austin’s vibrant country scene since the 1970s. To his left this night was Ruthie Foster, a Grammy nominee herself and winner of a BMA(Blues Music Award) for Contemporary Female Blues Artist of the Year in 2010. She also hails from Texas and is as talented a lady as you will ever find. With a voice that places her on the upper tier in the deep pool of talented female blues/roots singers , she sings with a fire and a passion for telling a story in her music. Paul Thorn brings Mississippi mud to the table in this combo. A native of Elvis’s hometown Tupelo, Mississippi he plays in a gritty, soulful style style that is part gospel, part blues and all fun.
During the night they filled the dimly lit Pantages stage with magical moments and lots of laughter. While Ely is certainly funny it is hard to top Paul Thorn’s sense of humor. After each musician played song, Thorn going first followed by Foster and then Ely, the rotation came back to Thorn. he started on the first of a couple hilarious stories. he talked of him and his gal not getting along so well, so they decided to take it easy for a few weeks. They finally got back together and were about ready to “do the deal” when he noticed she had a hickey on her butt cheek…..he did it anyways. And the crowd roared.
Ely’s offering in the humor department was the classic joke about two death row inmates that were scheduled to die. The first for his last request asked to hear “Achy Breaky Heart” again just one more time before he dies. When the warden asked the second inmate what his request was he quipped “kill me first”. That got a the audience one again laughing. The three of them obviously enjoy each others company and they have a great energy together. As Foster tapped her guitar and Thorn tapped his feet to Ely’s second song the crowd was clearly into the show.
Ely told the attentive crowd that when you grow up in a small town you have to find your own entertainment. Like sneaking in the back of a drycleaner to try on other peoples clothes. That got the audience laughing again. Ely’s brand of music is a sort of traditional country with a bite to it. Joe played a spirited version of his song, “The Highway Is My Home”. With a healthy dose of picking and a sort of Texas calypso style, that song went over well with the crowd.
Ruthie’s second song was dedicated to Mavis Staples. Foster talked about her growing up in a small town right on the railroad tracks in Texas and although the title of the song escapes me right now, it was written by another Texan by the name of Mac Davis, who penned such legendary titles as “In The Ghetto” (made famous by Elvis) and “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me”. Foster’s version of the song and her ability to rattle the rafters was chilling to say the least. Ely even admitted that while he’d heard the song done many times, he’d never heard it done that good.
Before her next offering Ruthie mentioned growing up with older people down in what is known as the Six Mile community in Texas. She smiled as she reflected on her “Popo”(grandfather) and she talked of the still down by the river. She said once in a while “Popo” would be heading down to meet his friends by the river – and everyone knew what that meant. She continued to explain that they could hear him coming home from “a mile away” on that old country road. Foster imitated her grandma and said “Get out of the way your Popo comin” During the song, when she howls out the line “I had it all right at home” it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Listening to her soulful voice is damn near a spiritual experience that is matched by her fantastic guitar playing. And her obviously great song writing.
Thorn was up again …..this time on a more somber note, although he did toss in some humor as he talked of his friend Steve. Thorn explained that he’d been playing a long time gig at a pizza joint as the entertainment for the dinner crowd. One time a guy named Steve Ward came in and told him what he thought of his playing and complimented him on the songs. After a failed relationship which found Thorn checking up on his friend constantly, Thorn’s friend ultimately took his own life. But one of the calls Thorn had made to him contained what would become the title of a song called “I Have a Good Day Once in a While”. Thorn said without question it’s the song means more to him than anything else he plays. It’s another venture into the muddier side by this fantastic musician, country blues to the core.
After the rotation and went around several times and the stories were told, the trio left the stage. Of course the Pantages crowd was not going to let them off the hook that easily, so they clapped and roared until the supergroup came back out. The band explained that they all had a deep love for the one and only American storyteller Woodie Guthrie. Although earlier in the evening Ely had added some great acoustic guitar leads into one of Ruthie’s songs, this was the first time of the night all three musicians played at the same time and they truly saved some of the best for last. With tapping on his guitar, while Ely and Foster strummed along , they filled the room with three part harmonies to die for and even got audience singing along loudly.
That song ended the night at the Pantages for the Southern Troubadours in the Round and for the adoring audience that came out to see them. Separately, you’ll be hard pressed to find more talented musicians on the planet but together the have a magic energy. The sum of the parts of Southern Troubadours in the Round is definitely greater than the parts, even as great as the parts are.
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