St. Louis regular Joe Pug started the night at the Old Rock House. While he often plays solo, he brought his band this time - electric guitarist Greg Tuohey and upright bassist Chris Merrill. The addition gave Pug's stripped-down, heartfelt folk a boost of twangy richness that blended his set into the Flatlanders' without a catch.
The Flatlanders didn't waste any time, the three principles on guitars and shared vocals, backed with two more guitarists and drums, tearing into Ely's rowdy Texas stomp, "I Had My Hopes Up High," trading verses with Gilmore and Hancock. Such was the theme through the night - songs each artist wrote and recorded, now morphed into cohesive group numbers with no fighting to be the star, no sacrifice to their individual voices and styles.
Gilmore, with his high tenor twang culled from the same soil as Willie Nelson, epitomized classic Texas style on "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye." Ely took a more rock and pop career path. His voice remains rich and sweet, tempered with the sharpness of slide guitar on "Not That Much Has Changed." Hancock's folk storytelling and image-rich lyrics match his rough voice on "Julia," over a soft bed of Ely and Gilmore's harmonies.
They introduced "Rose From the Mountain" as a song from their newest album which, "in perfect Flatlanders fashion was recorded in January, 1972." It's hard to imagine this song about ruined recording dreams coming from these men when they were in their 20s, as it fits so well with 41 extra years of wisdom behind it.
The band's "The Way We Are" and Hancock's "Thank God for the Road" highlighted their taut harmonies, a sound that evoked a dry and windswept landscape under the slide's whistle. It sounded the way the west Texas landscape looks, tapping into the broad and soaring openness of the hot plains.
Before "Danglin' Diamond," the rest of the band left the core trio onstage to share some tales of their early attempt as a band. Then Hancock sang his classic western folk song that ventured into questions - what is time? What is truth? Done right, regionalism finds a universal truth from a specific place. Hancock's composition questioned from the heart of the wilderness of his birth.
Through their scattered careers, the Flatlanders kept tethers to each other through sharing the songs they'd written. Gilmore's song "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown" was a hit for Ely in the'70s. Last night, they took turns singing the verses as a soft duet. Gilmore's "Dallas" was recorded in that first Flatlanders session. His eventual solo version is one of the best songs of his career, but with the addition of his friends singing harmony on the chorus, it turns from high lonesome honky-tonk to a battle cry. Watch out when Jimmie Dale's got his posse back in tow.
They wound up their set with "Pay the Alligator," a riled-up, bad-behavior party anthem from their first reunion album, released in 2002.
The Flatlanders either underestimated how excited people would be to see them on their first night out, or they have the showbiz smarts to leave their audience begging for more, as they ended with a lone encore - a cover of Terry Allen's crook-disguised-as-Jesus road ballad, "Gimme a Ride to Heaven." They ended the song with a roaring five-guitar onslaught; no wonder they influenced punk rock, with Ely embraced by Joe Strummer.
Call it what you want - alt country, Americana, roots rock. The Flatlanders invented it and, lucky us, they continue to perfect it as they move through their late years.