Ely, Foster and Thorn Surprise and Soothe in Berkeley
Also appearing: Joe Ely and Paul Thorn.
It was both a fail-safe and slightly puzzling bill: Ruthie Foster, Joe Ely and Paul Thorn, playing solo and in-the-round on a Tuesday. Were they label mates? Pals? Was there an Americana/blues festival nearby? As it turned out, Thorn and Foster share a management company and have frequently toured together. Both Foster and Ely call Texas home. The Freight show kicked off a week-long run of shows the troubadours were doing along the West Coast — a formula they happened upon several years ago on the East Coast. While stylistically different, all three artists share deep roots in the South, along with leak-proof songwriting and a tendency to dip into the blues. This show hinged on this shared regional background. Each brought to the table clearly wrought tales of small town characters, love gone wrong, as well as love’s redemptive powers… and a generous sense of humor.
All three are at the height of their creative and energetic powers. Foster is basking in a recent Grammy nomination for her Promise of a Brand New Day album, Ely is getting close to living-legend status (the Flatlander recently released a ‘long-lost’ duet with none other than Linda Rondstadt), and Thorn has been enjoying a streak of well-received recordings, most recently with his anthemic Too Blessed to Be Stressed. It wasn’t a big surprise, then, that every seat in the house was taken. A hum of satisfied-to-be-there expectancy hung over the crowd before the show started and the trio was greeted warmly as they took their seats. A love-fest seemed in order.
Thorn started innocuously enough — the former boxer and son of a preacher letting the audience know he’d just flown from a family vacation in Disney World before playing a brief, two-verse, two-chorus tune called, “If I Can Get Over Her.” Foster admitted she’d recently spent more time parenting than performing. She grounded herself — and brought a smile to everyone’s face — by following Thorn with an a capella tune that showcased the power and ease with which she sings. Then Ely entered with a 1997 gem, “All Just to Get to You.”
Any worry that the show might be too good, too masterful, somehow too slick and self-assured, was banished by Thorn, whose tendency toward over-sharing provided edge for the night.
Deep down, I want to be a good man
I make new resolutions every day
I start off with the best of intentions
Til my lack of follow-through gets in the way
Thorn sang these lines on “Backslide,” which he introduced with a vignette about teasing his wife on vacation that cast him in an insensitive light. He introduced an otherwise great song, “I Don’t Want to Know,” about resisting the temptation to stray from a committed relationship, by telling the audience they were liars if they didn’t desire others, toeing a very fine line between comedy and offense.
Ely and Foster kept Thorn in check with their tales about hard lessons learned: “Child you better fall on your knees/Before you fall in the wrong direction,” Foster sang in “Mama Said.”
“When the waitress happened to see him/I never seen any woman so sore/The skillet come flyin’ out the kitchen/And Shorty runnin’ out the door,” Ely offered on “I’m Gonna Strangle You Shorty.” Then Thorn interrupted his own song to let the audience know his theory about a certain sexual position. The audience nervously laughed. Foster’s mouth dropped. “I quit,” she half joked when he finished.
Then, it was her turn to follow Thorn. So she put it behind her, and us, with “Small Town Blues,” demonstrating why her Grammy nomination was followed up with a Koko Taylor Award nomination.
Thorn let his songs do the talking for the rest of the nearly-too-short evening. The just-shy-of-90-minute show could easily have stretched another few rounds if the audience had its druthers. But the trio, perhaps wisely, left everyone wanting more, ending by trading verses on Woody Guthrie ‘s “Old Dusty Road.”