Saturday, December 29, 2018
One Longfellow Square, Portland, Maine
This was my 50th Ellis Paul show! I saw him for the first time at my alma mater, Bowdoin College, back in 2002. I actually had to pass on a few of his shows in Maine over the last year so I could see my 50th show in a venue I really like, and One Longfellow Square fit the bill perfectly. Ellis and his friends have been warming up for their annual Club Passim New Year’s Eve shows at OLS for a solid decade or more, and that festive year-end energy felt like the right time for a milestone 50th show. I’d had a vision that I’d get to sing a song on stage or at least get a shout out from Ellis, and even though neither of those dreams came true, this was the best Ellis has sounded in a couple of years, so my 50th show was still an understated success.
I arrived early at OLS because this show is usually sold out and grabbed an extra seat for Colin in the front row. Ellis’ girlfriend, Laurie MacAllister of Red Molly, opened the show with Red Molly’s bassist, Craig Akin, on upright bass. Laurie put out The Lies the Poets Tell earlier in the year–a record of cover songs about love–and she played a handful of songs from that album for us. She told us that she hadn’t been able to write a song in many years, but her friend and collaborator, David Glaser, who we’d seen play at this very show last year, passed away unexpectedly, and “Out of the Darkness”–a song for David–poured out of her. She covered “Vertigo” by Mark Erelli and Antje Duvekot and “Ten Year Night” by Lucy Kaplansky. Laurie has a pretty voice and is humble and a bit shy on stage. I’d love to hear her singing her own songs in the years ahead.
Ellis Paul took the stage with Radoslav Lorkovic, Craig, and Laurie, and they entertained a warm crowd with a variety of Ellis’ songs spanning many years. Laurie sang lead vocals on “Home,” which she also covers on The Lies the Poets Tell. Laurie is a great support for Ellis on stage. It’s clear that his voice has struggled to hit the higher notes of his older songs given his rigorous touring schedule, and Laurie is able to supplement his vocals nicely, though it does feel like more of a duet act than a solo singer-songwriter one these days. The quartet dazzled with three covers in their annual end-of-the-year cover songs portion of the setlist–David Glaser’s lovely “Concrete River,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Africa” by Toto. Ellis joked that Don Con nearly quit the band years earlier the first time they tried to cover Toto, but that they’d worked it out.
The band took an intermission after playing ten songs, and I decided to say hi to Ellis in the lobby and let him know it was my 50th show. I really don’t like talking to musicians for the most part because I’m weary about being an annoying fan, but I did want him to know. I said hello and told him it was my 50th show and he very kindly pulled me in for a hug and said a genuine thank you for the ongoing support.
After the break, Ellis and the gang played seven more songs for us. Ellis showed us his beautiful guitar made by George Krakat with Ellis’ signature on the headstock. He charmed us with the story of his family in Aroostook County’s Washburn, Maine, and the incident at the 1979 family reunion that inspired “Five Alarm Fire on the Fourth of July.” He laughed while he told us that he hadn’t changed the names of any of the people in his family in the song, and that “every generation of my family since the Civil War has produced a potato farmer until now–because everyone knows the big money is in folk music.”
Ellis told us about his upcoming album, The Storyteller’s Suitcase, which is funded by supporters. On his website, Ellis writes–”The music will be a collection of stories I’ve gathered from around the country. The Storyteller’s Suitcase will be an autobiography of songs. It’s about love, heroes, and family across the decades of my life. In the past five years since my last album Chasing Beauty I’ve left a marriage, a business partnership, a booking agency. I’ve lost my voice and regained a new one. I’m looking at this project as a new start, after a few years of regrouping and healing.” He told us that the album comes out early in 2019, and I’m eager to listen, especially after hearing “Afterlife,” which is a song Ellis wrote about explaining the death of his father to his then 5-year-old daughter. It was incredibly touching, and I had tears in my eyes while he played it. He did make us laugh, too, when he told us that this had been the “first profound conversation” he’d ever had with his daughter, but that “she’s 14 now, so our conversations are more often profoundly awkward these days.”
I am always happy to hear Ellis play Mark Erelli’s beautiful and timeless “The Only Way.” They dedicated the last song of their set–“The World Ain’t Slowin Down”–to their friend David Glaser and we sang along. We asked for an encore and Ellis and the gang unplugged and sang “Annalee” from within the crowd on the floor. It was the best Ellis show I’d seen in awhile, and a nice one to mark 50 Ellis Paul shows with, too.