The Flatlanders are a supergroup a la The Traveling Wilburys, though admittedly the names Gilmore, Ely and Hancock are a tad less recognizable than the likes of Harrison, Dylan, Orbison and Petty. But make no mistake, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock are superstars in their own right, albeit with a distinct Texas twang. Like The WIlburys, Flatlanders records are few and far between; their new release Hills and Valleys is only their fourth album in 30 years, including one 8-track and a vinyl LP. Like their recorded output, Flatlanders tours are all too rare as well. So, kudos to The State Room for bringing this enigmatic group to Salt Lake City for Sunday night’s show.
I first saw Jimmie Dale Gilmore a decade or so ago at the Utah Arts Festival (remember when they used to bring musical acts worth hearing?). I became an instant fan and, later, discovered the Flatlanders music as well. Well, this might not be Austin, but as it turned out the intimate State Room was an ideal venue to showcase the strengths of this uber-talented trio, accompanied among others by smokin’ guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, who also provided guitar and backup vocals to singer/songwriter show-opener Bukka Allen. BTW, kudos to The State Room for not gouging on drink prices. Beers are $3-$4, wine is $5, and cocktails are $6-$7.
The show kicked off with “Hopes Up High” and immediately won the small, enthusiastic crowd over. Six songs went by – including the gorgeous “Julia” – before the boys first spoke to their audience. When they did, Jimmie Dale Gilmore broke up the crowd by saying, “I don’t know why I’m always surprised, but I always LOVE Salt Lake City. Isn’t that weird? …. Residual prejudice that I didn’t know I had!”
Then it was on to three new tunes from the Hills and Valleys record, including “Homeland Refugee,” which Joe Ely calls their “reverse migration” song. It could easily be a Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen-penned tune, a tale of today’s domestic refugees driven from their homes and hometowns by greedy bankers just like the dust bowl migrants after the crash of ’29. Another Hills and Valleys song the band performed about refugees is “Borderless Love,” a lovely song, seemingly both about love and illegal immigrants, with the brilliant line, It’s the fearless who love and the loveless who fear and the equally insightful chorus: Borderless love, the land of the free/Borderless love, how far can you see?/Borderless Love, there’s no fear at all/In a borderless love there’s no need for a wall. The State Room crowd cheered loudly at each refrain of “there’s no need for a wall” and The Flatlanders loved it.
The clever, double negative-infused “No Way I’ll Never Need You” included Butch Hancock brilliantly replicating the Mexico-infused accordion breaks from the album on his harmonica. After a gritty version of “Dallas” (Joe Ely’s voice is a great as ever), The Flatlanders kicked off a gospel hootenanny with a joyous version of Woody Guthrie’s “Sowin on the Mountain,” before taking their leave to a standing ovation.
The Flatlander’s first State Room encore ended with a balls-out, tear-the-roof-off-the-sucka version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight-Liner,” in which, for about the eighteenth time during the evening, guitarist Robbie Gjersoe stole the show, flashing white-hot Telecaster licks like a true Texas guitar gunslinger. Coming back for a second encore, the boys played “See the Way” before finally closing out the night with Terry Allen’s hysterical “Gimme a Ride to Heaven,” a tune about Jesus (who might just be a carjacker) hitching a ride on a lonely Texas highway. As for all of us at The State Room, we were thrilled to hitch a ride with The Flatlanders, even if just for one memorable Sunday night.
Set list: The State Room, May 17, 2009
Hopes Up High/Eggs of Your Chicken/Wavin’ My Heart Goodbye/Sew the Seed – All That You Need/Julia/Wheels of Fortune/Homeland Refugee/Borderless Love/After the Storm/Midnight Train/Thank God for the Road/No Way I’ll Never Need You/Love’s Own Chains/The Way We Are/Dallas/Sowin’ on the Mountain
Encore 1: South Wind of Summer/White Freight-Liner
Encore 2: See The Way/Gimme a Ride to Heaven