Ellis Paul played to a packed house at McCabe's on Sunday, January 23, 2011. He was joined by Radoslav Lorkovic and Mariana Bell.
Ellis Paul is one of the world's best singer/songwriters. He's been playing for more than twenty years, getting his start in Boston in the late 1980s. He was a member of End Construction, along with Jon Svetkey, Jim Infantino and Brian Doser. He's released many albums over the years, first on Black Wolf Records, a label started by manager Ralph Jaccodine, and then on Philo, before returning once again to Black Wolf Records for his most recent CDs.
He has attracted and developed a loyal fan base - not only through his excellent studio albums, but because of his incredible live performances. His concert at McCabe's in Santa Monica on Sunday, January 23rd (following shows in Ventura and San Diego) showed once again what a warm, genuine and engaging performer he is.
Ellis Paul took the stage at 8 p.m. Joining him on piano and accordion was Radoslav Lorkovic. Radoslav has played with Ellis Paul many times, but his presence at these California concerts was a last-minute surprise. He also did some backing vocals.
Mariana Bell joined Ellis on backing vocals, as she did the last time he played at McCabe's. She's a wonderful backing vocalist, because she knows just how much to add to a song without being overpowering. She's able to vary her volume, and find just the right places in each song. And of course it doesn't hurt that she has a beautiful voice.
Mariana opened the show at 7:15 p.m. with an excellent (though brief) set featuring a couple of songs from her CD Book (2008) as well as wonderful new material from her upcoming release, Push.
The Day After Everything Changed
Ellis Paul started the show with "Rose Tattoo" from his most recent studio release, The Day After Everything Changed (2010). He told the audience that he would play a lot of songs from that album, and was true to his word, playing nearly half of the album's tracks including "Lights Of Vegas," "Hurricane Angel," and "Dragonfly."
Before "The Lights Of Vegas" he told the story of writing the song with Kristian Bush. Kristian Bush is known for his country duo, Sugarland. For the album, Ellis wanted a song about a geographic location to ground the audience. Kristian told him he was working on a song about Las Vegas, which wasn't what Ellis was looking for. But Kristian played him what he had, and they decided to write it together. But Kristian insisted that there be a "na na na" part to the song.
Ellis argued, until Kristian took his Grammy award off the shelf and slammed it onto the table. At that point Ellis gave in. So at McCabe's, after relating that story, he taught the audience the "na na na" part. "The Lights Of Vegas" is a song that is incredibly catchy, more so because of its chorus than the "na na na" section.
Song About McCabe's
Ellis Paul is a big fan of McCabe's. And he often improvises songs about the venue when he plays there. The second song of the night was such an improvisation.
In addition to being a concert venue, McCabe's is a famous guitar shop, and some beautiful guitars adorn the walls. Ellis said, "So this is like a difficult place to play for a musician, because almost every dime you make is spent leaving with something." Ellis has bought several instruments there over the years. In fact, at his show on November 8, 2008 he improvised a song called "Ukulele Song" on an instrument that he ended up buying.
At this most recent show, he said, "I kinda feel like this is where all the good trees go to die." That is, they become these great guitars. That led to him making up a song.
He sang, "This is where all trees go when they die/When they die/This is where all good trees go." He then listed some brands of guitars that the trees become. The line "And they pray they won't be banjos" got a huge laugh from the audience. Radoslav and Mariana were right in step with him as he improvised the song. It was a wonderful moment.
"Maria's Beautiful Mess"
After his song about McCabe's, Ellis Paul played one of his absolute best songs, "Maria's Beautiful Mess." Ellis is known for writing some great songs, and this one is a prime example. From his 2002 release, The Speed Of Trees, "Maria's Beautiful Mess" includes such wonderful lines as "Her eyes glow/Lips pop open like a bottle of wine/And she loves like it's thirst/Like she's never been hurt/She's dancing just like nobody's watching." Radislov's playing really added to this already-incredible song, and Mariana's backing vocals were perfect.
Ellis asked the crowd if there was anything in particular anyone wanted to hear. Most folks shouted out legitimate requests, such as "God's Promise" and "Jukebox On My Grave" (both of which he ended up playing). But predictably one guy yelled out "Freebird." Why do people insist on doing that? The joke wore out its welcome at least two decades ago. Well, be certain that at least this particular guy will refrain from shouting out such nonsense at future concerts, because Ellis Paul totally called him out on it.
He looked directly at the guy and sang "The Heckler" to him, putting him on the spot. It's a funny song, done a cappella, created for just these moments. Here are some of the lyrics: "Then came your special moment/The singer called out for requests/And a voice just rose within you/Half Jack Daniels, half Tourette's/'Freebird,' you cried." It ends with, "You're a heckler and that's all you'll be/Because this microphone was made to stay with me."
Now if every singer and band would do something similar, perhaps there could be an end to the "Freebird" thing.
Ellis Paul on Piano
On some of his more recent songs, Ellis has been putting down his guitar and playing piano instead. He played a few of those songs at McCabe's, including "Hurricane Angel," "Once Upon A Summertime" and "Heaven's Wherever You Are" - all of which were included on The Day After Everything Changed. During those songs, Radoslav played accordion.
Before "Hurricane Angel," Ellis mentioned that eight songs from the CD are going to be featured in the new Farrelly Brothers film, Hall Pass. His music is not new to films by the Farrelly Brothers. "The World Ain't Slowin' Down" was featured in their 2000 film, Me, Myself & Irene, and "Sweet Mistakes" was featured in Shallow Hal (2001).
Ellis dedicated "Heaven's Wherever You Are" to a guitar that he wanted to purchase several years ago at McCabe's. It was six thousand dollars, and so a bit of his price range. But at one point he decided to buy it anyway, only to learn that it had already been sold. To Neil Young, who bought it for his wife.
Woody Guthrie wrote thousands of songs during his lifetime, many of which were never recorded. And many of those songs have no written music. So Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie's daughter, has been asking certain musicians to write music to some of these songs. Ellis Paul chose to write music for a song titled "God's Promise." While introducing the song at McCabe's, he told the audience about his Woody Guthrie tattoo (which is on his right shoulder), which he showed to Arlo Guthrie several years ago in Boston.
He described the moment of meeting Arlo and showing him the tattoo: "I saw his eyes kind of focus in and his molecules all separate at the same time, as he focused on my shoulder. And then he kind of looked at me like you would look at me if you saw your father tattooed to my body. And then all the particles kind of came back together again and he said, 'Cool.'"
"God's Promise" was a song that Woody Guthrie wrote when he was in the hospital.
"The Speed Of Trees"
Another audience request was "The Speed Of Trees," the title track from what might be Ellis Paul's best studio release. Ellis Paul has a great rapport with his audience, and he joked with the man who requested the song. The man requested it for a woman for her birthday.
"Is it a landmark birthday?" Ellis asked. The man responded, "It's special."
Ellis then asked, "Is it really her birthday today?" The man replied, "We're celebrating it today." The audience responded with a collective "Ahhh," and then laughter. Ellis said, "You see how a few clever questions can really clarify so much for all of us." But he agreed to do the song (though he hadn't rehearsed it with Radoslav and Mariana).
Ellis Paul wrote "The Speed Of Trees" in Big Sur. The lyrics include, "Your love makes me move at the/Speed of trees/I've laid down some roots/I've grown a head full/Of make-believes/But if it weren't for that face of yours/I'd be rattling windows blowing down doors."
Ellis Paul ended the set with "3,000 Miles," a song which has been an audience favorite for many years. It's a song from his second CD release, Stories (1994), and one that he's performed at nearly every concert since that album's release. This night he played it with a slightly extended intro, to feature Radoslav on piano. And then toward the end of the song, Radoslav did a lead part on piano that was incredible.
The encore was "Home," which was one of the first songs Ellis played piano on. It's a beautiful tune about an old house that Ellis owned and loved. When babies were on the way, they had to move out because the house had dangerous staircases and lead paint. "And then occasionally it snowed inside," he joked.
So in the song he burned the house down in order to feel better about leaving it. In this song, Ellis sings, "This house is just an address/You're my home." "Home" was included on Live At Club Passim New Year's Eve 2005.
Concert Set List
- Rose Tattoo
- This Is Where All Good Trees Go
- Maria's Beautiful Mess
- The Lights Of Vegas
- Hurricane Angel
- Alice's Champagne Palace
- Walkin' After Midnight >
- Change >
- Walkin' After Midnight
- The Heckler
- Jukebox On My Grave
- Take All The Sky You Need
- Once Upon A Summertime
- Heaven's Wherever You Are
- The World Ain't Slowin' Down
- God's Promise
- The Speed Of Trees
- 3,000 Miles
Ellis Paul's set was approximately an hour and forty-five minutes. Ellis had a cold, but it wasn't obvious from his performance.
Last year the city of Boston honored Ellis by declaring July 9th to be Ellis Paul Day. He celebrated his twenty years of music by performing all of his studio CD releases (except the children's album) in chronological order over a series of four concerts at Passim.
Radoslav Lorkovic has performed and recorded with Greg Brown, Odetta, Richard Shindell and Jimmy Lafave. He's also released several of his own albums.
McCabe's is located at 3101 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, California.
(Note: I originally posted this review on January 25, 2011.)