Americana singer-songwriter Joe Ely and accordion player Joel Guzman are very good in the intimacy of this live setting.
You decided to read this review because you're either unfamiliar with the music of Joe Ely and thought you might get hip to something new or you already have a good idea of what you have to look forward to and just want to know if Ely's new album is another good one or another great one. If you're a novice to the sounds of this great Texas singer-songwriter, then check out my summary of his career in my PopMatters review of his 2007 studio album Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch.
Let me be honest with you, though. Ely's latest, a collaboration with accordionist Joe Guzman called Live Cactus!, isn't really intended for first-time listeners. Introducing yourself to Ely with an album as intimate as this is like barging in on a small dinner party uninvited. There are certain things you're supposed to know in advance. If the words "Letter to Laredo" mean nothing to you, well, mister, you don't know Joe. That is but one of the 13 song titles from Live Cactus!, and most of the cuts are classics.
Whether an Ely fan or not, you could be forgiven for not knowing the name Joel Guzman. You've may have heard Mr. Guzman before, though. He too is a veteran of the Texas music scene, playing accordion and keyboards primarily with Latino acts during the '90s, including Mazz and legendary tejano master Flaco Jimenez. In 1998, he and Ely joined forces twice: as members of the super-group Los Super Seven and on Ely's Twistin' in the Wind album.
After a decade of working together, you would expect the two men behind Live Cactus! to have developed great musical chemistry, and you'd be right. Stripped, as they are here, of the steady backbone of a rhythm section, Ely and Guzman are left with just acoustic guitar, accordion, and a pair of human voices. Not that this would intimidate a couple of pros. Ely and Guzman flourish in this environment, clearly capable of drawing a live crowd into their world. Even during a slow and spare number like the 30-year-old "Because of the Wind", Ely's guitar and Guzman's accordion seem to operate as one infallible organism. The same holds true on Randy Banks' beautiful "Where Is My Love," a song Ely captured with a full band on 1990's Live at Liberty Lunch.
Despite the spare instrumentation, Live Cactus! isn't all slow songs and a wistful mood. Ely and Guzman pick up the pace with Rattlesnake Gulch's "Miss Bonnie and Mr. Clyde", a raucous retelling of that classic tale of doomed love. "All Just to Get to You", from Letter to Laredo, also rides a brisker tempo and features some nifty accordion soloing from Guzman. They close the album with another snappy ditty, Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues", with Ely trading lead vocals with his gruff-voiced protégé, Ryan Bingham.
The performances on Live Cactus! are most effective at their extremes. The mid-tempo tunes that comprise the rest of the album are solidly enjoyable, but generally less captivating than the earlier studio versions that were filled out with a backing band. The thrills on Live Cactus! come from holding your breath during the pauses between notes or feeling the energy of the crowd during Ely and Guzman's friskier numbers. Any lover of American music would be taken in by these songs and the masterful skills of Ely and Guzman. The rest of the record is mostly for those who are already fans of Ely and will happily devour as many different takes of "Ranches and Rivers" that they can get. For the rest of you, Live Cactus! is a very good album that showcases much of Ely's top material, but not as well as his 2000 Best of Joe Ely.