Iowa Arts Festival; June 3, 2011; Downtown Iowa City
Ha Ha Tonka was recently offered the opening spot on Joe Ely’s tour. They’re too young to even know who he is, but I was so excited I swore I was taking the full two weeks off and going with them. Unfortunately it didn’t end up working out, but it did lead me to the Iowa Arts Festival where Ely was one of several impressive acts. I had thought about attending last year when the Pines, Jeffrey Foucault and the Honeydogs were all featured, but the threat of rain kept me from making the three and a half hour drive. This year’s line-up was even better. As opposed to Madison’s Art Fair on the Square where music is an afterthought, the Iowa Arts Festival balances music and art equally and they do it well.
The ninety plus degree day turned into an equally sweaty evening, but under an umbrella in the “Arts Festival Beverage Area” with a cold beer proved a fairly pleasant way to watch first band Crooked Still. With guitar, upright bass, fiddle, cello and banjo they were pretty good if you like that sort of thing. I made friends with a retired couple who enjoy music as much as I do, and we talked about the bands we love. Once Joe Ely took the stage however I left the beers behind to be up close. The very civilized crowd who had set up their chairs for the evening stayed seated, but they left plenty of space in front for me to wander up. I was immediately impressed with his band, an experienced bass player, an adorable young drummer and a fantastic guitar player who switched easily between acoustic, electric and slide.
Ely will be releasing his twenty something-eth studio record Satisfied at Last on June 7th and he played many of the instantly memorable songs from it tonight. The melancholy “Mockingbird Hill” features two lonely characters straight out a Harry Chapin song. Ely said part of it came from a conversation he overheard, and he made up the rest. “You Can Bet I’m Gone” tells the interesting story of a man who picked a unique way to be put to rest- he had his ashes put into shotgun shells and then had his friends invited over for a shooting party. “Leo and Leona” features another pair of Ely’s colorful characters, though this time in the south of the border world of bullfights. There were no shortage of the hits either, “Me and Billy the Kid” drew cheers from the crowd and the epic “The Road Goes on Forever” had folks singing along. At the end of the night I was even more disappointed the tour hadn’t worked out, I could have easily seen Ely a dozen more times.