A couple years ago I saw Joe Ely play at a tiny little club called “The Turning Point” in the town I grew up in. The Turning Point is hardly even a venue, more like three or four closets held together with Scotch tape. I went out to see him mostly as a tribute, figuring he’d be like Bobby “Blue” Bland or Les Paul, great players and great presences, but shadows of what they used to be. He’s played literally thousands of shows since he started touring in 1963 and to much bigger crowds than he could expect (or fit) in my little town. But he came down the steps (no backstage), hopped up under the lights, and played a show that was truly impressive.
By the time he got to my little town Joe Ely he had been playing about a hundred shows a year for 30 years. He’d toured the entire continental United States and most of Europe, with everyone from John Prine to The Clash. He’d released 17 albums under his own name and many more with the other bands he’d been in. Even after all of this Ely has never had what you could call mainstream success. Indifferent record labels are mostly to blame for this, not releasing some records, and hardly promoting the majority of them. But despite, or maybe because of this, Ely’s performances have gotten better and better. Every second of the night is a full commitment, a truly heartfelt statement, whether he’s playing his own songs or one of the many covers he’s refined over the years.
The strongest of these covers is a song called “Gallo Del Cielo” originally written by Tom Russell, another unrecognized performer, in the same school as Ely. It’s is a song about a man named Carlos Saragosa who steals a rooster named Gallo del Cielo to bet money on him in cockfights. He wagers his sisters locket, the only thing he has of any value, trying desperately to muster up the money to buy back the land stolen from his father. Saragosa travels from town to town, bidding every penny he has again and again on the strength of the rooster. Eventually his luck runs out as the rooster’s beak breaks and Gallo Del Cielo falls in the dust, dead. Saragosa is crushed, and winds up a broken, defeated man.
It’s a tough song, a real heartbreaking story of faith meeting reality and after the show was over I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The song is meant to be about Saragosa, his struggle and his defeat, but when Ely sings it you can tell that he’s not relating the protagonist. How could he relate to someone who is crushed after only one defeat? No, Ely isn’t Saragosa. He’s the rooster, Gallo Del Cielo. You won’t see him giving up, he’ll fight until he no longer can, and whether it’s his heart that gives out or his fingers, it sure as hell won’t be his spirit.