ACL Live Shot: Robert Ellis
Houstonite’s scowling complexity forges a southwestern flair
By Doug Freeman,
10:29AM, Sat. Oct. 11, 2014
Robert Ellis could easily become a star if, paradoxically, he doesn’t fall victim to his own multifaceted talent. A skilled songsmith capable of perfect hooks and sticking indelible phrasing, Ellis plies deep country twang, poignant grit, jazzy runs, and even expertly watered-down radio crossover hits. When he picks a route, he’ll go as far as he wants.
As it stands, Ellis intentionally frustrates almost every expectation – and delights in it. Just as he eschewed the hardcore country acclaim of 2011’s Photographs, the Nashville-based Houstonite refuses to be pigeonholed. Even by acclaim.
Accordingly, he opened his second ACL Fest set with dreamy, hypnotic guitar and swooning pedal steel on “Only Lies.” His quintet lulled gracefully from the start, in fact, noodling with complexity and southwestern flair on “Good Intentions.” “Steady as the Rising Sun” struck as too saccharine despite Ellis’ crooked scowl and grimace, but hometown ode “Houston” showcased his full range.
Setting up at a keyboard, he worked through an underdeveloped new song before reluctantly exhuming the searing twang of Photographs's “What’s In It For Me?,” which finally ignited the crowd. With the short festival set, Ellis had little time to ride out that energy, though his closing cover of Richard Thompson’s “Tear-Stained Letter” rollicked into a rockabilly jam.
Ellis declines to take sides among his influences, but he hasn’t yet managed to meld them all into something effectively different. He also refuses an easy outlet for his talent. That by itself will forge his path.