Ellis Paul – One Longfellow Square (Portland, ME – Dec. 27, 2014)
‘Twixtmas” — the days between Christmas and New Year — are often filled with activities such as devising new recipes for using up left over turkey, going for long winter walks, watching old films on TV, shopping in the sales, playing board games. But, for me this year, it was spent flying London to Boston to see Ellis Paul play his annual Twixtmas and New Year’s shows in Maine and Massachusetts.
First stop on the concert trail was Portland, ME, where Paul was playing his eighth annual Twixtmas show at the intimate performing arts venue on the corner of State and Congress. The show was sold out and in order to accommodate the demand for tickets, the stage was made smaller so that extra seats could be made available.
He introduced his “band” (one Radoslav Lorković, accompanist extraordinaire), and the pair opened with a couple of Paul’s best-known crowd pleasers: “The World Ain’t Slowing Down” and “3000 Miles”. Both had the audience singing along without any prompting and set the tone for a warm and engaging evening. It included a seasonal reading of the poem “The Night The Lights Went Out at Christmas”, which is going to be turned into a children’s book in 2015. This is wonderful news. Since becoming a father to two daughters, Paul has ventured, very successfully into music for the youngest of generations and his book, The Hero in You, the companion to the album of the same name has been very well received.
His latest recording for the adult market is the album Chasing Beauty, and songs from it featured in tonight’s set list. By just being played with accompaniment on guitar and keyboards, the songs were unadorned of the instrumentation that is on the album. This allowed the lyrics to breathe. Paul is such a literate writer and I love his work all the more when the lyrics aren’t masked by the accents placed on the production and instrumentation.
Standouts were “Mary, Mary” — a tender and delicate narrative which ought to become a Christmas classic — and “Waiting on a Break”, which is a co-write with Boston-based Adam Ezra, inspired by another Boston-based musician, Dennis Brennan. Brennan works in a hardware store by day and rocks out the local clubs by night. He attracts other musicians to his shows like moths to a flame. I’ve been wanting to see Brennan play live for years but our schedules have never coincided. It’s my loss.
Paul paid a wonderful tribute to the late Pete Seeger with an inspired arrangement of “If I Had a Hammer,” explaining that since Seeger’s death last January, he had undertaken to play one of Seeger’s songs at every show for a whole year. That’s a love letter to a dearly missed and inspiring friend.
Partly constructing the set list on the hoof, he responded to a request for “Hurricane Angel”. It is testament to Lorković’s skill and ease as an accompanist that he just runs with whatever song is included. They haven’t seen each other for months, yet play off each other like a pair who have been rehearsing regularly. Punctuating the music with stories and playing “Blackbird” from the Beatles’ White Album on a record player to illustrate how and why vinyl is making a comeback, Paul was delighted to tell us that there will be a vinyl release of Chasing Beauty in the New Year. “Add to cart”, as they say!
Finishing off the night by walking into the auditorium for an unplugged “Love Is a Curious Thing”, the pair were practically in darkness as they closed out to a standing ovation. They came back on stage for an encore, inviting tonight’s opener, Chris Trapper, to join them for the aforementioned “Waiting On a Break”. What a great Twixtmas celebration!
(Photo credit: Richard Webb)