The sound of trees
Boston folk singer Ellis Paul wins over a Chico Women’s Club audience
Only half of the 50 or so green folding chairs were filled when Ellis Paul began his show Nov. 15 at the Chico Women’s Club, and I wondered how the creator of the title track to Me, Myself and Irene would react to such a small crowd.
What I soon discovered about this balladeer was the wonderful balance he brought to his performance, his folk music and his old-soul lyrics. A resident of Boston, Paul was in the midst of his “Speed of Trees” tour, named after his most recent album. He started his show with a crowd-pleaser, something to reel in the non-believers, a mix of guitar flamboyance that bordered on rock—hitting both fast and slow beats in a staccato of lyrics. I was enchanted, and for the first set I could take no notes.
With his guitars, on one of which was thoughtfully scribbled “Anti-Terrorism Machine” in black magic marker, he gave us “Maria’s Beautiful Mess,” a song about loving like you’ve never been hurt and dancing like nobody’s watching. “Three Thousand Miles” chronicled the Greyhound trip of a young man heading for better places than he’s been, and “Conversations with a Ghost” brilliantly reminded us that our loved ones, though gone from us, stay alive in our hearts forever.
In between songs Paul joked with the crowd, who in their small numbers had gained the boldness to joke back. He recounted stories that made us laugh and showed us the inspirations that fall on a man who likes sitting on a bluff watching the clouds go by. Paul added that he’d played an ice cream shop once, but never a women’s club.
In his second set, he unplugged and came down to our level. And, although there were no speakers to amplify him and no light to brighten his face, he sounded surprisingly the same. His awareness of his voice and inflection were perfect even without backup.
The song “God’s Promise” off of his new album is Paul’s music put to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics. He told us that he’d had the rare opportunity to go through the folk artist’s archives not too long ago. When he sings the song you can see how careful he’s being, as if he’s holding those decades-old lyrics in his hand and one wrong move will render them dust, lost forever. It’s with respect and admiration that he tells us what God’s promise is.
He also performed the title track from his latest album, The Speed of Trees, a musical manifestation of the balance we seek in our own lives as we struggle with our busy schedules and deadlines. In it he tells us that life can be lived at hectic speeds but can only be appreciated at “the speed of trees.” As the crowd was wont to remind him, Chico is a good place to do your lift-off.
At the end of the show, the 25 of us gave him a standing ovation. We’d found in him a friend: His stories gave us something to take heart in, his songs were our treasures and we coveted them. When he signed my liner notes, "Lyra, glad you were here!" I couldn’t have agreed with him more.