Two renowned folk songwriters, Ellis Paul and Eliza Gilkyson, shared the Swallow Hill stage Saturday night, charming the audience with stories and songs while the snow fell outside.
Ellis, who had the first set, drew mostly from his upcoming record, The Day After Everything Changed (January 12, 2009 but available on his site now). “I have a brand new record out, I know some of you don’t know who I am so it’s all new to you,” he joked.
“I wrote this song with a guy named Kristian Bush, he’s in the country duo Sugarland,” he said before Lights of Vegas.
“I went down to Atlanta to write with him, I had one more song to finish for the record and I said, ‘I want a song for the record that’s geographically somewhere in the United States, that has cultural significance to the US and who we are and so when people are listening, they’ll find themselves in a place that will center then in the middle of the record.’ And he said, ‘I have this thing about Vegas.’ I said, ‘You know, that might work. What’d you’ve got?’
“And he played it for me, he played the chorus and it was just a little snippet and I said, ‘Let’s work on that.’ He says, ‘Well, there’s a downside.’ I said, ‘What’s the downside?’ He said, ‘It’s got a na-na-na-na-na part.’ And he knows I’m a little bit of a folk music purist, and I’ll do the ‘la-la-las’ and the ‘do-do-dos’ but the ‘na-na-nas’ are just gratuitous. So we had this rather existential kind of argument about ‘na-na-nas’ and their purpose in songs and why they’re there and should they be there at all and then he got frustrated and he reached over and grabbed his Grammy and just put it on the coffee table.”
He played Alice’s Champagne Palace, about a place in Homer, Alaska, before moving to the piano to play the moving Hurricane Angel.
He continued joking before Maria’s Beautiful Mess saying, “I’m so glad you outnumbered us, we were a little worried with the storm and all. You’re brave, you’re hearty.”
Introducing Jukebox on my Grave he explained, “I have been to see Buddy Holly’s grave site in Lubbock, Texas, I’ve seen Woody Guthrie’s headstone in Okemah, Oklahoma, I’ve been to the field where Buddy Holly’s plane went down in Iowa, I’ve been to see Elvis three times, I’ve been to Hank Williams’ grave site in Montgomery, Alabama – it’s got artificial turf right there on the grave site. He’s also buried next to his ex-wife, they didn’t get along too well, it’s probably a hellish afterlife for him. She had control of that grave site.
“I don’t want you to think I’m morbid, it’s not a fixation or obsession or anything, I’ve also been to the birthplace of Ronald Regan, but that was just an accident. I was just getting gas and there it was.”
He hopped off the stage (after deciding that fainting from altitude might be a problem if he stood on the edge of the stage) to sing Annalee entirely unplugged.
Back on the stage he introduced Snow In Austin as the “first ever Texas Christmas Roadkill song” saying, “This song is about snow… I’m sorry, would you like a Jimmy Buffett song? ‘It’s Five O’clock Somewhere?’
“It’s a Texas Christmas song. I was driving in Texas to do some shows and I heard this story on the radio about a snowstorm that hit Texas and it blanketed almost the entire state and I didn’t know that it snowed down there at all and I thought, ‘That would make a great Christmas song, a Texas Christmas song.’ So I put a pad of paper on the steering wheel between Austin and Houston and I wrote this song. It was probably the most dangerous four hours of my life. When I got to Houston, I realized I couldn’t remember a damn thing from the drive, except for this string of armadillos that kept on appearing, they had committed suicide on the road. Out of respect for their sacrifice, I included them in the song.”
He talked about how the next song, The World Ain’t Slowing Down, had been in a Jim Carrey movie and then it was picked up in Oklahoma as a jingle for blood donations and that now Tim McGraw has put it on hold for his next record, “which means it’s sort of like a very small version of the lottery and I have to wait six months to find out if I win, I’m crossing my fingers.”
For his encore, Home he came back to the piano and said that while a house burns down in the song, his house didn’t actually burn down but in a song you can burn down houses or “you can kill people in a song, you can shoot people, like Bob Marley shot the sheriff.”
A short intermission later, Eliza Gilkyson’s set began with her saying, “That Elllis was pretty scary, that was a good set. But we’re gonna throw down.”
Taking a moment to sort out her new strings and re-tune, she introduced Nina Gerber, “she’s not my side-guy, I’m her front person.”
After opening with Not Lonely, she said how great it was to be at Swallow Hill and commented on the “incredible blizzard” outside before asking if we’d call it a blizzard. “Ok, in Texas that’s a goddamn blizzard. But of course you would probably say ‘heat wave’ for what for us would be just a slightly warm day.”
“A lot of people think I wrote that song about the Bush administration,” she said after Party’s Over. “But actually, I was not thinking that, I mean, it would have worked, part of their party’s over but the deeper root of the disease is still having a good time. But I actually was writing it about all of us because I thought anybody in a first world nation has been having a party for as long as there’s been oil, so that’s going to change, how we live our lives. I don’t think there’s ever going to be an energy system that does what oil did, it’s not going to be the same and that party is over and it’s probably a good thing.
“But, when I wrote that song, like a lot of artists, we’re kind of excited and fearful the first time we play it out and I wasn’t sure anybody was going to get it. The first time I played it was at this wonderful little theater in Santa Barbara, it’s from my latest record and after the show I thought most of it had gone over pretty well but a woman came up to me after the show and she said, ‘You know that song about the party?’ (Eliza used a great Valley girlish accent for this part) I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ ‘That sounds like a terrible part-tay.’ ‘That’s right, we were all there, you definitely were there.’ Well, you know, songs mean different things for different people.”
She interrupted herself saying, “I love playing with Ellis” but because they get shorter sets when they co-bill, “I’ll just shut the hell up and play some music.”
Instead, she told a story about Rose of Sharon, a song which was on Joan Baez’s last record and that Eliza “stole from the Old Testament” after she had “obviously read my People magazine and didn’t have anything else to read in that hotel room so I had to resort to the Bible.” She joked about changing the Bible around to suit her needs and went on about political figures who have done as such, “you’ve had several though, haven’t you? Anyway, don’t worry, in Texas we have ‘W.'”
She jokingly added that the Joan record had gotten a Grammy nomination and she was hoping that the record would win because she had two songs on it but she lost to “that stupid little Alison Krauss and Robert Plant record, go figure!”
Keeping with songs from Beautiful World, she played Emerald Street with an extended (and very impressive) whistle solo and then an audience whistle-a-long and then a little friendly competition with Nina, swapping guitar licks for whistling (“That one’s yours” Eliza laughed after a particularly funky riff. “That’s definitely yours.)
Eliza invited surprise guest Mollie O’Brien to the stage and took a moment to talk about Austin losing Stephen Bruton earlier in the year and dedicated Dark Side of Town to him, because even though she had written it about another friend, it “could have been written about him [Stephen] and I also realized that everybody in this room probably knows someone this song could have been written about.”
Mollie stayed for Tender Mercies after which Eliza noted that “we’ve never sung together before, she just walked out here and did that.”
Pausing again to tune she said “I like to change them every three months, whether they need it or not, or every six months. I told Nina, ‘I like dead strings.'”
She offered the audience a chance to make a request (Twisted) and then went on to talk about Michael Moore’s new film and played Runaway Train, her metaphor for corporate capitalism.
“Thank you so much for coming out in the not-the-blizzard, we’ll just follow you home.” She thanked Ellis Paul and Nina Gerber again and mentioned that they all had CDs for sale in the lobby and she had all of hers with her (“I had to rent an extra airplane, people say, ‘Gee, you’ve got so many songs!’ and I say, ‘Yeah, well, I’m old!”)
Since we had whistled so well, she wanted to do Wildewood Spring, a singalong song about Barton Springs and how there’s a little endangered salamander that breeds there and that Barton Springs is where they “draw the line in the sand for so many of our environmental battles because in Texas we don’t have mountains to collect water for us, we just collect from the rain and then it goes down into the aquifer and that’s what we have to work with. And we’ve had so much development there, I know you know how that is, it’s been insane and this is where we fight our battles and it’s about coming together in a way.”
For the encores, she played Beautiful World on the piano and then ended the evening with the Terry Gilkyson classic, Memories are Made of This saying that it was a hit for her dad in 1956 and that it was the first one she remembered driving around in the car when the song came on the radio.
Ellis Paul’s Set List
Lights of Vegas
Take All The Sky You Need
Alice’s Champagne Palace
Once Upon A Summertime
Maria’s Beautiful Mess
Jukebox on my Grave
Snow In Austin
The World Ain’t Slowing Down
Eliza Gilkyson’s Set List
Rose of Sharon
Dark Side of Town (With Mollie O’Brien)
Tender Mercies (With Mollie O’Brien)
Memories Are Made Of This