Robert Ellis, once regarded as a canny Texas troubadour in Country and winsome rock, has adopted a fully formed persona in his current record as the “Texas Piano Man,” resplendent in an all-white tuxedo tinkling the ivories. He and his four-piece band, dressed stoically in all black suits, took their Texas Piano Man tour to the packed basement of the Songbyrd Music House and Record Café.
The Texas Piano Man record and performance are a virtuosic display of classic piano-based pop music from the 1970s, updated with verve and a smattering of curse words. At his best, Ellis finds a way to connect the rollicking barrelhouse piano of Elton John with the sardonic irony of Randy Newman at the peak of his 1970s mastery of form. Mirroring the new album, Ellis' band started the set off with “Fucking Crazy,” a sensitive ballad that Dan Fogelberg would have bowdlerized but proudly claimed, and “There You Are,” which would have been a prime Badfinger single.
Crouching over the piano, pouncing maniacally on the keys, Ellis monopolized the attention of the audience except when he periodically surrendered the spotlight to his guitarist, Kelly Doyle. Otherwise, as he joked to the audience and the sound engineer, “How’s it sound? Lots of piano? That’s kind of the point.” It’s easy to come up with 70s points of reference for Ellis on songs like “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love” — and there will be a lot more 70s comparisons — but perhaps a closer comparison is Lyle Lovett in terms of chameleonic mastery of pop, country, R&B, and jazz forms that can come across as playful or shallow but periodically emerges as deeply felt. "He Made Me Do It” is a Warren Zevon-like romp about a self-destructive alter-ego, but whereas a Zevon song would revel in the destructive behavior, Ellis disavows responsibility. In "Perfect Strangers,” the glib remove of many of the songs dissolves into devastating analysis as Ellis pokes at the wounds of a fraying relationship.
Nothing in the Songbyrd set was as deeply heartfelt as “Father,” which Ellis described as his favorite song on the record. It’s a heartbreaker of a song about trying to reconnect with an estranged parent, replete with the poignant detail of a photo taken on a beach long ago, with a man holding a fishing rod just out of reach of his son’s hands. But after that somber “bummer” of a song, Ellis and his band ramped things up again with “Driving” and the loving character study of the breathlessness in youthful romance in “Couples Skate,” from his self-titled 2016 record.
As the set moved toward its closing, Ellis and his band got more casual and increasingly discursive, with covers and requests from the audience and a rambling story about the Game of Thrones premiere in New York. Due to what must have been a hilarious set of misunderstandings, only hinted at, a half-drunken Ellis in his white tuxedo ended up in the VIP section of the premiere next to Khaleesi and Jon Snow, getting a ride in an SUV to the after-party with Dave Chappelle. This all led into a joyously flip song about a peculiar Texas carbonated beverage called “Topo Chico and Lime,” played with rip-roaring abandon. The cleverness of Texas Piano Man highlight “Passive Aggressive,” which hews close to Ben Folds, comes in how the song mirrors the antagonist’s actions: the piano and guitar threatened to unleash a storm of resentment but Ellis kept pulling back the tempo just when the audience expected an explosion of righteous anger. There was a faithful version of George Strait’s rodeo lament “Amarillo by Morning” with an extended guitar solo, a half-remembered cover of a Jonny Fritz song, and the thoughtful “California” from his 2016 record — yet another in the myriad list of country songs about the unrealized dream of hitting the road and building a new life unencumbered by the failures of the past.
No band set by the Texas Piano Man would be complete without a tribute to the original Piano Man, and the set wound to a close with a raucous and unironic performance of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right,” with the audience singing along faithfully, and the roadhouse honky-tonk of “Nobody Smokes Anymore.” Smoking cigarettes is disgusting and ChunkyGlasses does not endorse it, but few recent songs have done a better job than “Nobody Smokes Anymore” at bemoaning culture’s single-minded focus on responsibility and unwillingness to cut loose and have fun. Also, there are few funnier recent lyrics than “No one has fun anymore / Everyone acts like they wanna live forever / And nobody smokes anymore / The last years of your life are so shitty anyway.”
Robert Ellis is on tour NOW. Check out our review of Texas Piano Man on Discologist!