Saturday, September 22, 2012
Chocolate Church, Bath, Maine
I’m a pretty big Ellis Paul fan. For nearly a decade, I’ve spent New Year’s Eve with him at his annual shows at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I last saw Ellis on January 1, 2012 at One Longfellow Square in Portland—always a great way to begin a new year, and I gushed about him a bit in that post. This was my 38th Ellis show. I love Ellis’ narrative songs that tell stories about characters that listeners can relate to, from young lovers to music legends like Johnny Cash to historical figures like Chief Joseph.
I met my friend and fellow Ellis mega-fan Michelle outside of the Chocolate Church in Bath about fifteen minutes before the show started. I told her about the last time I’d seen him there—it was early January of 2004, and the pipes at the venue had frozen. The show went on, and we were really cold. I never took off my winter gear. During the intermission, I even went out to my car to get my emergency snowstorm blanket. Friends and I were sitting in the front row (you’re shocked, I know), and Ellis joked with me about it during his set.
As we took our second row center seats, Michelle and I wondered who would be opening for Ellis. I heard someone strumming a guitar backstage and said, “that sounds like Ellis.” Out he came! I always struggle with Ellis’ opening acts—I’d almost always rather skip them (sorry!) to get to the main event. He opened with a song I’d never heard before (impressive!) called “Chasing Beauty” and told us that he’s about to start another fan-funded recording project and that song would be on the new album. He reminisced about the last time he’d played at the Chocolate Church—the show I had been talking to Michelle about. He joked that it was the coldest show he ever played and it was like an Eskimo convention. He said it was nice to hear clapping at this show since we weren’t still wearing our mittens.
He played “Rose Tattoo” next and told us the sweet story of his beloved guitar Guinness that he played during our show. One of the things I love about Ellis’ stories is that those of us who see him often hear them again and again—there’s a stability I like in that. Here’s the story in a nutshell (I copied some of this from my last Ellis post). Ellis had played a beautiful parlor sized guitar at a particular venue over three years of gigs there (“it was like we were dating”), but decided it would be crazy to buy it because it cost $7,000. Later, when he decided to go for it, Neil Young had just bought the guitar he loved for his wife. Fast-forward to another fabulous and expensive guitar ($9,000) in El Reno, Oklahoma that Ellis played during his shows there. When the owner told him Neil Young was coming in soon, Ellis pulled out his credit card and bought the guitar (which he was sold for a nice discount). He named the guitar Guinness because it has light wood and dark wood pressed together. He told us that the first song he ever played on Guinness is on YouTube. I think this must be it.
“Maria’s Beautiful Mess,” the only song that I think Ellis plays at every show and is a crowd favorite, was next. (I picked that video from the Kennebunk Coffeehouse because I’m in it. I’m in the front row in the hooded sweatshirt.) Then he told us about being approached by Barbara Orbison, Roy Orbison’s wife, who had asked musicians to record Roy’s songs to celebrate his 75th birthday. Ellis talked about how Roy was able to make singing in the upper register seem effortless and joked that this “wouldn’t be pretty.” He asked if anyone had a pair of sunglasses handy (we didn’t) so he could conceal his bulging eyes. All the theatrics for nothing—his rendition of “Crying” was lovely.
Ellis told us his next song paid tribute to the great Johnny Cash, who quite famously kicked out the stage lights at the Grand Ole Opry. “Kick Out the Lights” is probably Michelle’s favorite EP song, and it requires audience participation. This is when I started to take inventory of my surroundings. I’ve seen Ellis 38 times and he is always great. What makes an Ellis show magical, then, tends to be the energy of the crowd. This crowd fell flat, either because they were new to Ellis or because they were painfully shy. Neither is a good excuse in my book, but it does happen from time to time. He could tell this, too, and encouraged us, saying that we should aim for volume not quality. We got through it, and Ellis definitely made eye contact with me to cue the audience participation parts because I’m sure he could tell I had his back. And I’m loud.
EP told us how his frequent tour mate, the talented Radoslav Lorkovic, accidentally bumped into a speaker that fell onto Guinness the guitar and left a big hole in it. He was planning on sending it back to the maker, but they wanted thousands of dollars for the repair, so he took it to a luthier in a trailer in central Virginia who glued one splinter on at a time, waited a week for it to dry, and continued for six months until Guinness was whole again. Guinness apparently has heard about Guinness the guitar, because they sent EP some merchandise and some beer. I think you know you’ve made it when that happens, right? By the way, this blog post is brought to you by Tiffany & Co., Land Rover, Kayak.com, and Royal Caribbean! Is it working?
Ellis switched to piano for “Hurricane Angel,” a song that pays tribute to the resilience of New Orleans—including the line “You can drown New Orleans but you can’t drown the blues.” After Hurricane Katrina, I remember that EP offered that song online for donations for relief efforts on the Gulf Coast. He asked us to sing along again because there’s a Bee Gees moment in “Dragonfly” that’s hard for him to hit. He joked afterwards that he could hear his sister singing. I don’t think I’ve mentioned in this post that Ellis is from northern Maine and his family was at this show since he’s been living in Virginia (and sadly playing less frequently in Maine) for a few years or so.
One of my former students, Jane, visited Homer, Alaska this summer. I’ve been meaning to ask her if she visited Alice’s Champagne Palace, the title of EP’s next song. He’s playing there again in November and the song is about how Alaska is home to a lot of people trying to get away from things, but still find a home at the local bar. He joked (?) that Homer has a bumper sticker “A Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.” Ellis kept with the theme and played another song I hadn’t heard called “Wasted.” Before the intermission, EP played a lovely song, “Mary, Mary” off of his upcoming Christmas album. I really like Ellis’ family album, The Hero in You, because it’s educational and intelligent without being music only kids can appreciate. I can tell his Christmas album will have similar wide appeal. I love the lyrics of “Mary, Mary,” especially “born to a mad world/weren’t you once a young girl.” It’s so good.
We took a short intermission and EP came back and opened his second set with “Snow in Austin.” My favorite song from The Hero in You, “Chief Joseph,” was up next and we got to sing Chief Joseph’s famous line “from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever” together. Ellis has obviously gotten used to singing that song mostly at family shows, because he made us do the hand motions he teaches the youngsters to do at them. I was sitting too close to him to get away with ignoring his directions! At least we all looked ridiculous together.
Ellis switched to piano for one of my favorites, “Once Upon A Summertime.” He told us the story of his high school sweetheart who became his first wife and how they watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July from her roof when they were students at Presque Isle High School. I absolutely love the lines “the sky turned to flame/I carved our names/Beneath the magnolia/I told you my heart wouldn’t change.” I think it captures the essence of young love beautifully. Ellis will be traveling north to Presque Isle in January to be inducted into the athletic hall of fame at his high school. He was a track star in high school and at Boston College, and I read that he started writing music when he had to sit out a season of running because of an injury. I hope he’s not upset that I’m glad it happened if it started him on this path!
We were such a quiet audience, which was maybe the reason why Ellis asked if anyone had any questions for him. I think a few people did, although I’ve forgotten them now, and he obliged with serious answers. “3,000 Miles” was next, followed by “Home” on piano—a sweet love song. The lines “home sits across the table/Home is dreaming in my sheets/Home, home, home, home/This house is just an address/You’re my home” would be enough to arrest my heart if it were sung for me. He says that “Home” was written as a farewell to a beautiful house in Edgecomb, Maine built in 1776 that he and his wife lived in and loved until they were about to have a baby and decided to move to Virginia to be closer to her family. It’s an amazing song and I think surely a favorite for many EP fans.
Ellis started to wind down for the evening and played “Take All The Sky You Need” and then came down into the audience, unplugged, and belted out “Annalee” to close the show. Ellis often wraps up his show in the audience, and I think it’s a great way for him to showcase the power of his vocals. He sounded great, as always. Even though we’d been a quiet audience, we were a grateful one, and EP played one more song for us. He wrapped the night with a great Johnny Cash song on piano, “The Night Hank Williams Came To Town.” As always, Ellis was great. I’m looking forward to seeing him a 39th time in December at One Longfellow Square. The crowd there tends to be significantly rowdier, which I think makes for a fantastic show.