The high-quality overload of Americana music in Sydney this week continued with a triple serving at The Basement that traversed country, folk and the cosmic musical universe of Robert Ellis.
Last time he played here back in July, Joshua Hedley made solid headway through a bottle of whiskey during his set, the jokes and banter becoming funnier and more fascinating as the songs and imbibing rolled on. Halfway through his set tonight he announced he’s recently sober which went someway to explaining his demeanour – less chatty but more focused. With a new EP in tow he let that pure country voice ring out across the room with Will Van Horn accompanying on pedal steel and culminating with what has become his signature song in Mickey Newbury’s ‘Sweet Memories’.
Joe Pug always has a seriousness about him, an earnest approach to folk music in the mold of Dylan and Springsteen. Acoustic guitar, harmonica and a poetic take on often dark material is his stock and trade and he delivered with poise and gravitas. Whenever his set threatened to become too weighted down in malaise of the heart and mind he lightened the mood with a frank assessment on the rise of Trump and drunkenly ordering sourdough ingredients on Amazon. With Pug you get the bare bones of folk, often with no amplification or microphone as he strove to find a direct line into the minds of the audience.
Robert Ellis confessed he’s had a few alcoholically self-sabotaged shows in Sydney in the past and he was out to make amends. With a band as superb as his he would have had to work hard to derail his set this time. They were masters of finding the subtle details in intricate arrangements, shaping and colouring Ellis’ songs with consummate ease. Out front, Ellis was gregarious and engaging, taking requests, exploring his back catalogue and performing commanding covers of Richard Thompson and Queen. He’s the modern day cosmic cowboy – blending jazz, yacht rock and confessional country heartache with dazzling guitar playing and self-effacing wit. Who’d have thought sad songs could be so much fun?