By Paul T. Mueller – Fans who bought tickets to the Jan. 26 show by Joe Ely and Terry Allen at Houston’s Heights Theater might have expected an entertaining song swap. They got that, and so much more. When the lights went down in the restored historic venue, the two veteran singer-songwriters were joined by a third, previously unannounced performer – Allen’s wife, Jo Harvey Allen, a writer, actress and artist.
For the next 40 minutes, the trio performed selections from “Chippy,” the Allens’ 1993 play about a Depression-era prostitute in West Texas, as well as other songs from their expansive canons. Ely, accompanying himself on guitar, and Terry Allen, on keyboard, took turns singing; between songs, Jo Harvey Allen read selections from the play and from the diaries of the real-life Chippy. It added up to an impressive display by three accomplished artists, whose performing skills were fully matched by their appreciation for each other and for their audience. First-set highlights included Ely’s “Cold Black Hammer” and “Wind’s Gonna Blow You Away” and Allen’s “Lubbock Tornado” and “Gimme a Ride to Heaven.” The two teamed up on “Fate with a Capital F” and Ely finished the set with his “Goodnight Dear Diary” from the play.
After an intermission, the show continued minus Jo Harvey Allen. Ely opened with a nice rendition of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Dallas,” drawing laughter with his “Pick it, Joe!” aside after a brief solo. Allen matched him with “Beautiful Waitress,” maybe the funniest song ever about loneliness. More brilliance ensued until Ely closed the second set with “All Just to Get to You.” The two left the stage to thunderous applause and returned after a few minutes, opening the encore with Allen’s “New Delhi Freight Train,” punctuated by Ely’s harmonica.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling Guy Clark in this room,” Ely told Allen, before launching into a quietly dramatic take on the late Americana icon’s “Magdalene.” The two closed their evening of musical magic in the most appropriate way possible – a heartfelt (and heart-rending) rendition of Clark’s classic “Old Friends.”
This venue enforces strict limits on photography, but the visuals of this show were almost worth the price of admission. With his black vest, white hair and big smile, Ely looked every bit the musical royalty he is. Allen projected a more diffident demeanor; with his craggy features, gray hair and cowboy shirt, he could easily pass for a West Texas rancher or oilman. Each sipped occasionally from a glass of brown liquid while ignoring nearby bottles of water, and both were clearly having a great time.
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