A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
I first heard Ellis Paul perform in the early '90s on the Boston coffeehouse circuit. He was opening for local folk phenom Patty Larkin, and he was late. Evidently there was some mixup about which night Ellis was to perform, so he jumped into his car and arrived on stage nearly breathless. I saw something that night that I've rarely seen since. An "unknown" Ellis Paul played for a roomful of another artist's fans and had them mesmerized. He sang four or five songs, spinning his tales of people he's known or imagined, in that now famous hushed tenor. A song called Angel, about a child dealing drugs from Paul's days as a social worker, still stands out in my memory. It was just one of those unforgettable nights. Who was Ellis Paul and where could I hear more from him?
In the years since, Ellis Paul has become one of the top draws on the acoustic scene, pulling in fans from Boston, to Texas, to California. His finely honed songs tell stories filled with images that sparkle like jewels. His is a poet's heart, and a romantic's soul. He is an optimist who believes in people and possibilities.
It is at a critical juncture in his career that Ellis Paul has released his first live recording, Ellis Paul Live. He has had early success, seen a marriage come and go, moved from Boston to Tennessee and back again. He has also been recognized by the powers that be in Hollywood with his song The World Ain't Slowin' Down, performed live here, featured in the Farrelly brother's upcoming film, Me, Myself & Irene.
Rounder Records has generously given us a double-CD recording which traces Paul's career from the early years through his latest offerings. The songs were recorded live at the Somerville Theater in Massachusetts, in front of a sold-out hometown crowd.
The recording offers us two versions of Paul's early masterpiece, Conversation With A Ghost. The first is a solo version with guitar and vocal. The second version features Patty Griffin's stellar accompanying vocals, giving this otherworldly song yet another layer of magic. It tells the tale of a woman, now dead, with whom the living are attempting to communicate. It's best to listen to it for yourself and come to your own conclusions.
Martyr's Lounge is one of the seven previously unrecorded songs, finding a home here for the first time. It's a catchy pop/rock tune that could easily fit into radio's top forty with the right exposure. It's all about the bar in heaven, populated with the famous names of the recently departed, Jacques Cousteau, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain among them.
Also featured here for the first time are three of Ellis Paul's spoken word pieces which are quite good, and fit in easily between the songs. But the real treat comes in the form of two stories, one describing a memorable trip on a small plane piloted by a Deadhead, and the second describing a certain singing transvestite in Manhattan. The stories reveal the playful, humorous side of the mostly serious Paul that we have heard on previous recordings.
Ellis Paul Live is a stunning success. It captures the many facets of what makes Ellis Paul the sought after performer he is on stage. It's all here: the memorable, beautifully written songs, the poems filled with evocative images and metaphors, and the humorous stories behind the songs. For both fans and the uninitiated alike, this is the recording to get. Ellis Paul Live is a triumph.
Edited by Mark O'Donnell