In a year that’s shaping up to be another great one for music, an early contender for various ‘Best Albums of 2014’ lists is, no doubt, The Lights from the Chemical Plant by Robert Ellis. For the record, Ellis has shaken off the shackles of country music and his new sound defies definition. Draw a Venn diagram of country, bluegrass, Americana, jazz, rock, and other. Whatever the middle area turns out to be, that’s where you’ll find Ellis. And, at The Basement in Nashville last night, he and his band blasted out of that grey area at full-throttle.
The set kicked off with a jazz improv intro that found Ellis and Kelly Doyle dueling guitars before making their way into “Good Intentions,” one of the feistier numbers on Chemical Plant. The shuffling meander of “Pride” stepped up to the plate next. While the gentle piano flourishes from the record were absent, the song was no less a stunner — a testament to the musicality of the players who were present (Doyle on guitar, Will van Horn on pedal steel, Geoffrey Muller on bass, and Mark Stepro on drums). As Ellis made his way through the R&B-tinged “Steady as the Rising Sun,” it seemed that his vocal timbre, van Horn’s pedal steel licks, and Muller’s cowboy hat were remnants of the artist’s previous country incarnation that were determined to linger no matter where else the music strayed. Fine. It works. Really well.
Once they got to “Only Lies,” the balanced interplay of the musicians really shone brightly with various guitar riffs calling and responding to each other while Stepro kept things grounded with a laid-back, easy groove. Something really special happens when truly great players join forces: Everyone is at ease and the magic just flows. Magic, I tell ya. That’s what happened, yet again, in another freeform interlude during “Houston.” The only way to follow it was to counter it with a marvelous solo flight on “Tour Song” that rendered the full house silent.
A kicking new tune, “Elephant,” chased away the remains of quietude and previewed what we have to look forward to from the 25-year-old’s very bright artistic future. While Ellis effortlessly proved his mettle as a songwriter, his selection and execution of cover tunes is equally impressive. At the end of the set, he worked through Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy after All These Years;” Kris Kristofferson’s “Gettin’ By, High, and Strange;” and Richard Thompson’s “Tear-Stained Letter,” the best of a fantastic trinity.
There’s something about the virtuosity and immediacy — but not urgency — evidenced in Ellis’s live show makes The Lights from the Chemical Plant all the more accessible and all the more appealing. If anyone walked into The Basement as a doubter, they certainly walked out as a believer.
Photo by Michelle Aquilato, Americana Music Association.