Robert Ellis @ Mercury Lounge

LOWER EAST SIDE, NY—This Robert Ellis is not the best-selling author of the novel City Of Fire. This Robert Ellis is a singer-songwriter who grew up in a small industrial town in Texas. In 2010, he entered the Houston music circuit as Robert Ellis & The Boys, playing country music standards on a weekly showcase called “Whiskey Wednesday.” Gradually he introduced original songs and recorded an album which he sold at shows. He received greater attention when American Songwriter magazine named his second album as one of the top 50 albums of 2011. A year later, he and his wife sought a fresh start and a new sound by relocating to Nashville, Tennessee. His third album, The Lights From The Chemical Plant, was released on Feb. 11.

On Feb. 18 at the Mercury Lounge, Ellis fused together many sounds. Primarily a songwriter with a guitar, he sang his songs with an urgency that demanded respect for his focused lyrics and soft melodies. The set showcased his original compositions, almost entirely from his new album, but toward the end included covers of songs written by Paul Simon and Richard Thompson. Ellis’ small band gave the songs character, fleshing out the sonics with folk, country and even bluegrass nuances. The pedal steel player guaranteed the Southern imprint.

Yet, just when it seemed like country music was Ellis’ niche, the band erased the footprint with a bossa nova beat or a free jazz improvisation, as if Ellis was willfully breaking down any limitations placed on his music. For example, he introduced one of his last songs as a bluegrass standard, yet he and the band started the song with an extended free jazz improvisation that was nearly as long as the bluegrass portion of the song. Nevertheless, the performance revolved around the axis of the songwriter, who locked his intriguing lyrics in simple folk pop melodies; the experimental arrangements then added a wide palate of flavor. In the end, this experiment clicked successfully; if this was country music, then Nashville has met an expanded horizon.


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