It’s been over a year since Robert Ellis departed Houston for Nashville, and Friday’s show, his first at Fitzgerald’s since his departure, will find Ellis truly back on home turf. Every week for more than a year, he and his band The Boys used to hold free “Whiskey Wednesday” shows at Fitzgerald's, where his audience soaked up Ellis's original songs and Texas folk standards along with bountiful booze. These gigs gave many in the audience a chance to reconnect with folk music, a genre that sometimes seems to belong to another time or place. Listening to Ellis's last album, Photographs, it's easy to hear echoes of country legends in the evocative complaints of tearjerker "What's In It For Me?," or in the simple sadness of "Friends Like These" and "Photographs." More energetic songs like "No Fun" and "Comin' Home" roll unstoppable and chipper across heartache, longing, and betrayal, all within a palette that should be familiar to fans of Texas country music.
Ellis isn't coming back from Nashville empty-handed. He's been hard at work on his third album, The Lights From The Chemical Plant (out on New West Records on February 11), which he describes as "very much rooted in pop," and heavily influenced by the likes of Paul Simon and Randy Newman. He entwines an alternately touching and scathing depiction of life growing up in the Bible Belt amidst the turbulent swirls of noise draping the bluegrass bones of his new song "Sing Along." The just-released “Only Lies” uses a mournful slide guitar to convey a tale of heartache over a skittering drumbeat, evoking lonely drives down the open road. Both songs demonstrate that even as he expands his sound, Ellis hasn’t lost touch with his roots.
For his Fitzgerald’s show, Ellis will be the co-headliner, along with Shakey Graves, the moniker of Austin’s Alejandro Rose-Garcia. Although Rose-Garcia has only been making music since 2009's self-released Donor Blues EP, he's already attracted such fevered support that the City of Austin declared February 9th "Shakey Graves Day," complete with performances and an official proclamation by the mayor.
Rose-Garcia has certainly earned the praise. Performing as a one-man band, he writhes and pulses to the beat while playing guitar, harmonica, and kick-drums and delivering piercing vocal performances that suggest experience beyond his years. While they sound a bit sleepy on the album, songs like “Roll The Bones” and “Built To Roam” roar to life in person. In concert, Rose-Garcia seems like a man possessed, conjuring haunting chords through sheer feeling, spitting out complex rhymes with almost frightening emotion. No two performances are the same.
Rose-Garcia has already played in the Houston area several times this year, most recently at the Texas Crawfish Festival in April. But his bill with Robert Ellis may be the most natural fit of all: two singers, young but preternaturally attuned to affairs of the heart and mind, channelling the confident ease of their famous forebears, while giving hints that they too are destined for great things.