"I'm going to try to do some surprises tonight," said Jimmie Dale Gilmore with a sheepish smile at the beginning of his first stop on his solo tour of the East Coast. The announcement was answered by scattered laughter from the crowd -- surely everyone crammed into the tiny Mercury Lounge was already in on the lean, silver-haired Texan's secret before he even stepped on stage. Indeed why, for a solo show, were there three mics and three chairs on stage? And so many guitar cases? And the biggest give-away of all, as thrilling as the anticipation surrounding a childhood Christmas eve, was that big wood saw leaning casually against one of the chairs. Either Gilmore was going to get medieval on the stage, or the rest of the "more a legend than a band" Flatlanders -- Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Steve Wesson and Tony Pearson -- were waiting in the wings.
The Flatlanders reunion, which came midway through Gilmore's set and lasted a too-short three songs (the whole concert only lasted an hour), had been rumored for weeks. The band, after all, would be in town taping "South Wind of Summer," their contribution to the Horse Whisperer soundtrack and first joint collaboration in twenty-six years, for The Late Show with David Letterman the same day as Gilmore's show. Indeed, had the Flatlanders not come through, Gilmore would probably have had to turn water into wine in order to appease the polite but obviously fervent audience.
Or perhaps not. From start to finish, Gilmore exuded an easy charm that could have tamed a twister. It had something to do with his relaxed, self-effacing humor: "The problem with doing these solo gigs is playing the solos," he announced during a bridge to one song, which he fumbled. "Sort of a musical senior moment there." It had something more to do with his canny song selection: mostly covers, mostly written by New York songwriters -- Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk. And most of all, a lot to do with his voice -- a beautiful and reedy vibrato, halfway between Willie Nelson and something even higher.
It's a lonesome whippoorwill of a voice that practically begs for sorrowful songs, and Gilmore gave it free rein with a predominately mournful set of stripped down, folky blues. Of the first five songs, which started with the shuffling blues of Van Ronk's "Bad Dream Blues" ("If you don't want me, please don't let me know") and Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time" ("If only she was lying by me/then I'd lie in my bed again"), the least-bleak offering was Townes Van Zandt's world-weary "No Lonesome Tune," which ain't no happy ditty itself. "There's just something about sad songs," noted Gilmore as he tinkered with his tuning, "They make people happy."
Gilmore followed Van Zandt's song with the convoluted -- and significantly more upbeat -- wordplay of Hancock's "My Mind's Got a Mind of It's Own," with Hancock joining him on stage to blow harp, play a guitar solo and take over on the second verse. The remaining three Flatlanders -- surprise! -- walked on stage directly after that song, and all hints, allegations and rumors became reality as Gilmore, Hancock and Ely traded verses and harmonized through A.P. Carter's classic "Hello Stranger," Hancock's lovely "Bluebird" and Gilmore's signature tune, "Dallas." As thrilling as it was to hear these three singing in unison, Wesson (saw) and Pearson (mandolin) proved themselves to be just as vital to the Flatlander's achingly beautiful sound.
Such transcendent moments rarely last, however, and promptly after "Dallas," the reunion was over and Gilmore was left with the unenviable task of carrying on alone in the afterglow. But just as he had confidently stood his ground against the wave of expectation prior to the Flatlanders arrival, so too did he remain self-assured in their wake. He had reason to be comfortable, knowing he still held two aces up his sleeve: the set closing, burning blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Black Snake Moan" and David Halley's "Rain Just Falls," an overlooked jewel from Gilmore's first solo album, 1988's Fair and Square and possibly the saddest song of the night . "It ain't on your account that I'm leaving/If I'm leaving/Rain don't fall for the flowers/If it's falling/Rain just falls," he sang to the hushed, enraptured crowd, his voice fluttering as high over their heads as the haunting warble from Wesson's saw. Then, quietly, it fell like a goose feather ... and as quickly as the Flatlanders had left, so too did he.
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