Austin, Texas -- Three songs into the set, the magic begins. Joe Ely gets to the part of "Boxcars" when the band takes it down low, and Little Joe -- the Michael Landon of Lubbock music -- steps to the front of the stage and strums his black acoustic guitar as if he's trying to make firewood out of it.
It appears the song has ended when Mr. Ely's right arm stops blurring. But suddenly, surfer-haired guitarist Ian Moore leaps into the fray with a blazing series of cutbacks and sustains. The kid, merely 23 years old, rips like the ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
At the other end of the stage, Reese Wynans, a veteran of Vaughan's band Double Trouble, plays a dense organ line that sounds as if it can't decide whether to go to a funeral or a roller rink. Then it's Mr. Ely again, fanning the flames until two strings break on his guitar.
When the song ends, to Arsenio-esque applause from the packed Continental Club, Mr. Ely compromises between a smile and a laugh. "Man, 1992 is gonna be a fun year!" he says, elated.
After more than a year of performing alone onstage and recording his next album ("Love and Danger," which has been delayed until August), Mr. Ely, (who appears at Baltimore's 8 x 10 Club tonight) is back doing what he does best: fronting a lollapalooza of a live band. After losing his longtime guitar player, David Grissom, to John Mellencamp's money, Mr. Ely took his time filling those size 14 kicks. With Mr. Wynans and Mr. Moore, however, the Lubbock Flash has continued his tradition of surrounding himself with talent that rivals his own.
"I've always liked the way Reese plays [he's featured on Mr. Ely's 1981 LP "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta"], so it was really great to get him," Mr. Ely says. "I didn't think Ian was available, though, because he had his own band and was close to a record deal."
Mr. Moore had received a few offers for developmental deals, but the self-proclaimed "hippie kid" followed his rock 'n' roll heart and decided to put his solo career on the back burner to play in the band he'd often daydreamed about being in.
"Who wouldn't want to play with Joe?" he says.
Mr. Moore is one of those Austin kids whose parents brought him to such legendary clubs as Soap Creek, the Armadillo World Headquarters and the Austex soon after his first bout with diaper rash.
"Even before I started playing guitar," he says, "I'd see Joe and think, 'Man, it would sure be fun to be in that band.' "
Calling it his "tank-of-gas tour," Joe Ely decided to break in his new band with eight shows in Austin in two weeks.
"We were going to just do one or two big shows at the [Austin] Opera House," the 45-year-old Lubbock rocker says, "but then we decided to make it more like training camp. This is the kind of band you want to work out with."
Besides the two new players, the latest edition of the Joe Ely Band retains the rhythm section of bassist Jimmy Pettit and drummer Davis McLarty, who have been thundering behind Mr. Ely for six years.
Another area in which Mr. Ely has had trouble is in getting his songs played on the radio. That's a problem he had while signed to MCA's pop division (he was dropped in '86), but his non-entity status is even more prominent with iron-formatted country radio.
"I stopped trying to figure out how to get played a long time ago," he says. "Even though we're signed to a country label, there's only one song on the next album that could be called country. And that wasn't added for airplay reasons."
Joe Ely's voice was not made to be heard on the radio. It's a yelp, a shiver, a snarl that lacks the required polish. Think of radio as a ham-and-cheese sandwich and his voice as cayenne pepper. They just don't go together. But there is a place where Mr. Ely's vocal swagger belongs -- like applesauce next to pork chops. It's one of those rock 'n' roll roosts where sweat glistens like diamonds and a cold beer tastes like heaven.
Joe Ely performs
When: Tonight at 10
Where: 8 x 10 Club
Call: (410) 625-2001