Joe Ely & Joel Guzman: Live Cactus!

Americana singer-songwriter Joe Ely and accordion player Joel Guzman are very good in the intimacy of this live setting.

Joe Ely and Joel Guzman

Live Cactus!

Label: Rack 'Em
US Release Date: 2008-03-11
UK Release Date: 2008-03-31

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.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.