Better than: Seeing the Flatlanders at the Wyly or the Granada, where they've played their last two shows. The ballroom at the Sons of Hermann Hall is their natural element, as dusty and real as the colorful West Texas characters that populate the band's best songs.
The silver-haired hippies that frequent the Sons of Hermann Hall could barely contain their excitement on Saturday night, but it seemed many other Dallasites missed the boat on the chance to see Texas legends the Flatlanders in their first appearance at the intimate, storied venue. Though the ballroom was respectably filled by night's end, it was hardly a sell-out--strange considering that all three original Flatlanders (Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock) have packed the ballroom in past years with their respective solo shows.
Opening with the Carter Family classic "Hello Stranger," the band showed off the rich harmonies that have become their trademark, with each singer taking a verse--a formula that would be repeated often throughout the night. Unfortunately, the subtle musical touches that have historically peppered the Flatlanders' material in the studio--from the spooky singing saw of Steve Wesson on the band's debut to the touches of Tex-Mex accordion and pedal steel found on their latest material--were missed in a live setting, with the band leaning a little too hard on the fiery blues leads of guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, which grew tiresome over the course of the evening.
Which isn't to say watching these legends run through spirited takes of blues numbers like "Deep Elem Blues" and Gilmore's own "Midnight Train" wasn't fun--it just wasn't that interesting. The band fared much better when it stretched out into the Buddy Holly-indebted West Texas rock of Hancock's "Baby Do You Love Me Still?" or the norteño-flavored "Borderless Love," one of the highlights of the band's 2009 album, Hills And Valleys. The three singers shined brightest on the evening's ballads, however--Ely's definitive version of Robert Earl Keen's "The Road Goes On Forever" notwithstanding--with their legendary harmonies lending gravity to a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' On Raton" and an encore of Hancock's classic "If You Were A Bluebird."
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Though Ely's showmanship and Hancock's desert lyricism were evident thoughout, it was Gilmore who provided the night's finest moment, with his lonesome West Texas warble bringing a devastating touch to the band's recent "After The Storm," a tale of love gone wrong set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe the band was simply more invested in its newer material--or maybe it was the fact that we just finished reading Dave Egger's excellent Katrina tale Zeitoun--but it was easily the most memorable performance of the night, especially impressive given the fact it was nestled in a set of bona fide Texas classics.
Personal Bias: Joe Ely cassettes were a permanent fixture in my mom's minivan for most of my childhood.
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By The Way: It seems everyone who survived the progressive country scene of the '70s went on to sire a singer-songwriter son, and you'll often find them opening for their fathers on the road. Jimmie Dale's son Colin filled the role on this night, playing a set of songs from his new album, Goodnight Lane, and joining the Flatlanders for his own "The Way We Are," which his father's band covered on their last LP.
Random Note: Former Cowboy and current CBS 11 broadcaster Babe Laufenberg--his beard as neatly trimmed as ever--took in the show, even hanging around afterwards to compliment Colin Gilmore on his opening set.
Baby Do You Love Me Still?
Deep Elem Blues
All That You Need
After The Storm
Right Where I Belong
Snowin' On Raton
My Wildest Dreams
The Road Goes On Forever
The Way We Are
Sittin' On Top Of The World
If You Were A Bluebird
White Freightliner Blues