Joe Ely paid heartfelt tribute to Merle Haggard at the Folly Theater on Wednesday. In his introduction to a poignant reading of “Mama Tried,” the Texan suggested that the country legend who died earlier in the day wrote “songs about hard times turning into good times.”
The same could be said of the compositions of Ely, Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn, cohorts in The Southern Troubadours. The trio performed as part of the Cyprus Avenue Live series for an audience of almost 1,000.
Foster and Thorn sang along on the chorus as Ely took lead on “Mama Tried.” Although they were seated next to one another during the 95-minute concert, the selection was one of only a few on which the musicians attempted a modicum of interaction. The absence of a proper collaboration among the musicians celebrated for their remarkable solo careers was the only disappointing element in an otherwise stellar exhibition of engaging song craft.
Thorn, the most assertive of the three musicians, broke the ice with a daffy blues-based song about his mother’s gift of leftover vegetables. The former professional boxer from Tupelo, Miss., can be as funny as comedian Jerry Seinfeld and as soul-stirring as the Celtic sage Van Morrison.
Foster followed with an enchanting folk interpretation of the Johnny Cash hit “Ring of Fire.” The Texan is a thoughtful singer-songwriter in the emotive tradition of James Taylor. Ely concluded the initial round of songs with the melodic “It’s a Little Like Love,” one of dozens of gems he’s written in a career that began in the early 1970s.
The cycle was repeated six times. The unadorned format suited Foster best. With her magnificently lush voice and rhythmic guitar style that compensated for the lack of a band, Foster brought the audience to their feet with an empowering reading of “Phenomenal Woman.”
After noting that the pop star Justin Bieber was performing a few blocks away at the Sprint Center, Thorn recalled that his rendition of the Commodores ballad “Three Times a Lady” in a seventh grade talent show earned him a handful of female admirers. Thorn’s faithful re-creation of his boyhood triumph earned hilariously disapproving scowls from Ely.
A rock ’n’ roller at heart, Ely countered the acoustic guitars of Foster and Thorn with an electric instrument. The concert concluded with his wistful rendition of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever.” When he sang “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone,” Ely articulated the audience’s renewed appreciation for Haggard as well as for the three members of the Southern Troubadours.
Paul Thorn- “Turnip Greens:”; Ruthie Foster- “Ring of Fire”; Joe Ely- “It’s a Little Like Love”; Paul Thorn- “Three Times a Lady”; Ruthie Foster- “Up Above My Head”; Joe Ely- “All Just to Get to You”; Paul Thorn- “I’m a Lucky Man”; Ruthie Foster- “Harder Than the Fall”; Joe Ely- “Borderless Love”; Paul Thorn- “Love Scar”; Ruthie Foster- “My Kinda Lover”; Joe Ely- “Streets of Sin”; Paul Thorn- “I Guess I’ll Just Stay Married”; Ruthie Foster- “Smalltown Blues”; Joe Ely- “The Highway Is My Home”; Paul Thorn- “If You Can’t Love Me Forever”; Ruthie Foster- “Brand New Day”; Joe Ely- “Mama Tried”; Paul Thorn- “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”; Ruthie Foster- “Phenomenal Woman”; Joe Ely- “Live Forever”