The Flatlanders may be a supergroup today, but they didn’t start out as one.
Back in 1972, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore teamed up as The Flatlanders, to little acclaim. Today, all three have reputations as some of country’s foremost singer-songwriters, but The Flatlanders still might be the best way to catch them, as the group’s set in The Egg’s Swyer Theatre Saturday night showed.
The crowded theater bore witness to the melding of these three unique talents into something that was undeniably more. With Gilmore providing the authentic Texas tenor, Hancock the gritty baritone and Ely the folk-country approach, everything was covered.
The trio, backed by drummer Pat Manske, lead guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and bassist Jimmy Petit, immediately tore into “Hopes Up High.” Each singer took the lead at some point during the upbeat tune.
Throughout most of the night, Ely, Hancock and Gilmore were all playing acoustic guitars as well as singing. With no less than four guitars onstage, the band ran the risk of overcluttering their simple, loping Texas country tunes. But rather than each acoustic guitarist chugging away at the same rhythm, the trio managed to create a lush atmosphere on such numbers as “Wavin’ My Heart Goodbye” and standout “Julia” early on in the set. At no point were the three bandleaders ever playing the same thing on their guitars, and it showed.
After firing through some early numbers from the 1972 album and the “reunion” records “Now Again” and “Wheels of Fortune,” the band turned to newer material. Songs from “Hills and Valleys,” the group’s first record in five years, made up much of the second half of the set, proving the band’s mettle with new material as well as old.
Indeed, some of the evening’s strongest cuts were new songs, including the Ely’s “Homeland Refugee” with its spacey quadrupled guitar lines and stately lyrics. Here, Gjersoe definitely deserves mention — his licks and warm slide playing provided shading and color at the most appropriate moments.
Having three singers brings increased variety, but the songs themselves varied more than enough. “Borderless Love,” another new song, found the group tackling an almost island beat, while “No Way I’ll Ever Need You” nearly bridged the divide into reggae. The boys’ plainly Texan vocals always brought things back to a comfortable country medium, however.
The highlights were never-ending, but “Midnight Train” perhaps shown brightest. Here, the band released a mountain of tense playing in a buildup punctuated by the Gilmore, Hancock and Ely strumming gleefully.
Unlike The Flatlanders, young Chicago area singer-songwriter Joe Pug was making a return appearance at The Egg, having played at the venue last year. His plaintive, soul-searching acoustic songs and approachable style made his performance much more memorable than the typical opening singer’s.