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Ellis Paul


Maverick Magazine (UK) Review of Ellis Paul's London Show

Ellis Paul @ Cabbage Patch, Twickenham London, England
Sun 21st May 2006

"Brilliant, bloody brilliant, actually bloody brilliant, mate!" The colourful appreciation of a long-term UK fan, inches away from the tall Bostonian singer-songwriter, summed up the spirit of the Cabbage Patch audience who absorbed a vintage set from one of the finest US writers and artists active today. Despite a considerable following in the US and Canada, Ellis was making his English debut at the small cosy Cabbage Patch club in West London. Dressed simply in black jacket and jeans with an open-necked white shirt, Ellis resembled one of his early 70s' heroes, James Taylor, as he took to the Twickenham stage to the raucous sound of a victorious London Irish rugby supporters' chorus from the far end of the pub. He raised his eyebrows and smiled, "I saw my first game of English rugby on television the other day. Whew - I had no idea!" With that acknowledgement, he began with 'Maria's Beautiful Mess', the opening track from his 2002 album 'The Speed of Trees'. Reminiscent of Roy Orbison's song construction, Ellis started quietly and led up to a powerful crescendo, including key falsetto breaks. From the outset the 70-odd listeners were captivated by his mix of informality and intensity.

There followed two songs from his current album 'American Jukebox Fables', the tigerishly optimistic love song 'Take All The Sky You Need' and the curiously titled 'Jukebox On My Grave'. Ellis' next UK gig was Cheltenham, where Brian Jones (Rolling Stones' guitarist) is buried. Ellis is aware of his debt to great past musicians. He has visited several famous graves (and left behind guitar picks), including Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and, of course, his great mentor Woody Guthrie. The song is an expressive tribute with a wish that his resting place might be marked with a musical memento. What could have sounded maudlin was a delicate acknowledgement of life-shaping influences. One of three covers tonight came from gifted Massachusetts songwriter and performer Mark Erelli. Prompted by 9/11, 'Only Way' pulses with the energy of a young man peering through the fog of the present to better life ahead. Impassioned lines like 'I'm gonna give everything until there's nothing left to give' poured out with energy, conviction and Ellis' vocal dexterity. Staying in soulful mood, Ellis delivered a reflective love song, 'Words', with fine arpeggio guitar work. Some of the notes sung were held for an eternity that would have lesser singers gulping for air ("Bloody terrific, wow! Whew!" was the involuntary outburst from our friend at the front).

'Alice's Champagne Palace' celebrates a unique bar in Alaska and received full-on audience chorus treatment as Ellis produced some stylish syncopated strumming. 'If you're running away, brother you might just stay' he sang.

He was preaching to the converted including a solid Bostonian contingent, some in Europe to provide loving cheerleader support. A long intricate instrumental intro preceded '3000 Miles', mapping a road trip Ellis made ten years back (featured in his DVD of the same name). The lyrics provide delightful vignettes of scenes glimpsed as he sped across the wide expanses of Northern America; more chances here for lusty audience participation. The first half concluded with Ellis' sister-song to 'Route 66'. Called 'Blacktop Train', he performed this unplugged. Where the former looks at life personified by a famous highway, Ellis' song uses a railroad motif and includes the fine lyric - 'Every revolution rides the wheels of change.'

After the break, our attention was grabbed by the introduction of 'belly-up armadillos' (a potential name for a new band at next years' SXSW). Ellis introduced them when describing his blizzard bound Texas Xmas song 'Snow In Austin'. He wrote this one winter, driving from Houston to Austin, meeting little traffic but possibly nudging the odd armadillo into white oblivion. The song is a tender ballad with lines such as 'If snow fell in Austin, why can't you fall into my arms?' The Beatles were inundated with jellybabies from fans in the 1960s but Ellis was surprised to get Galileo-inspired presents from followers after releasing the song 'Did Galileo Pray?' One fan sent an academic thesis for leisure-time reading! The lyric describes how inventive thinkers throughout Time have been singularly unappreciated by their peers.

Jim Carrey's film 'Me, Myself & Irene' provided Ellis with good promotion, featuring his song 'World Ain't Slowing Down'. Ellis quipped that the film dialogue was somewhat spicey and he produced an edited video for his mum, all seven minutes worth! Fortunately Ellis didn't truncate his performance and the medium-paced song went down a treat. He slowed down the tempo for a poignant ballad of the I-will-be-there-for-you' variety. He dedicated 'If You Break Down' to a friend in the audience (no, not our 'Mr Brilliant'). Ellis highly rates Ray Bonneville and told me later they had toured together. Ellis' second cover of the night was 'Two Bends In The Road' (off Ray's 1999 'Rough Luck' album) - a fine funky chunk of Canadian country blues. Growing up in Maine provided the material for 'Eighteen'. The song portrays an impressionable young man filled with a sense of wonder, with overtones of Bobbie Gentry's 'Billie Joe' as tragedy punctures the bubble, causing the narrator to fall headlong into adulthood.

'Sweet Mistakes', the last song from Ellis' main set, is a tender commentary on how comfortingly imperfect we are. The chorus has the lines 'Bless your sweet mistakes that crumbled you down to your knees, that brought you to this place, changing you by degrees, when change was just what you needed.' The applause was long and loud before Ellis placated fans with two final songs as encore. 'Speed Of Trees' found Ellis close beside the audience in acoustic mode with another breezy ballad, giving full range to his extraordinary voice. Finally, as the 'Anti-Terror Machine' was again strapped on, we were treated to a Woody Guthrie song (resurrected by Billy Bragg and Wilco on their 'Mermaid Avenue' album) - 'Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key'. The childlike timelessness of his words emphasises Woody's masterly skill, clearly Ellis' greatest musical hero. As he finished the show with the lines 'Ain't Nobody That Can Sing Like Me', there were none (London Irish lungs included) who disagreed. Ellis Paul's debut UK gig has lit a flame that is likely to burn this side of the Atlantic for a very long while to come. -- Simon Beards

(photo - courtesy of Richard Webb)