BB: What do you feel makes a good show?
Ellis: A packed room makes a great show, first of all. And if the energy
in the room is really high, then size doesnít matter, in this case,
anyway. I donít mind playing small rooms or big theatres or big festival
places, as long as there are a lot of people there and itís filled to
capacity, then thatís my favorite room to play. After that, I like a
good sound system. If it sounds good in the room or good on stage, then
itís probably going to be a pretty good show.
BB: What do you consider to be one of your best shows so far?
Ellis: I love coming to the Somerville Theatre. Iím playing there on
April 9th. Thatís one of my favorite places. And Club Passim in Harvard
Square is an amazing place. Every New Years Eve Iíve done shows there
for the last 10 years or so. Those have been a lot of fun. Iím probably
closing in on 2000 shows in my career now, so the good ones have kind of
blurred. So have the bad ones.
BB: Who are some of the biggest people you have got to play with?
Ellis: Some of my favorites are Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Richie
Havens, people like that. Shawn Colvin, Roger McGuinn from the Byrds.
BB: Who are you the happiest to have the chance to meet?
Ellis: Pete Seeger. That was like meeting a demigod. Heís probably the
second biggest link in the folk chain behind Woody Guthrie. And the fact
that he is still alive and playing with all his heart is pretty amazing.
Heís in his 80ís, and heís still very vibrant as a performer and as a
BB: So if Pete Seeger is after Guthrie, where would you put Dylan?
Ellis: Dylan I wouldnít even consider to be so much a folk singer but a
rock star. I think he put out some amazing folk records, but I think he
was pretty self-consumed to be a folk singer. He was hell-bent on being
famous and rich. I think the real folk singer scene filled with people
that arenít doing it for money. Like Woody, and Pete Seeger, people
along those lines.
BB: Do you consider yourself in that group?
Ellis: Yeah, for the most part. Iíd like to make enough money to
survive, but all Iím really trying to do is write songs that paint a
picture of the world and I let the song do what they want to do after
BB: Do you have any pre or post show rituals when you play out?
Ellis: Not so much pre other than changing strings and saying a little
prayer before I go on stage. I tend to ask God for good ingredients to
make it a good show for me and the audience. I try to get a little quiet
time before I walk out on stage, and then afterward the best thing for
me to do is go to a quiet bar with friends and hang out, talk, visit and
catch up with people.
BB: Do you do any interesting covers
Ellis: Yeah, I do quite a few covers. I do some Neil Young
songs. I do Comes a Time, which is one of my favorite Neil Young songs.
We do some Beatles stuff, when I travel around with Vance Gilbert. We do
a string of Beatles songs all combined around one Beatle song, Dear
Prudence, and we kind of do a medley of the rest of the Beatles songs on
that. Then I do a few obscure songs, a song by Mark Erelli. Iíve been
covering it a lot. Itís called The Only Way, and Mark is a Boston
Artist. I just put out an album of cover songs with Vance Gilbert about
a year ago. Itís got some Van Morrison and Susan Warner and a Mark song
BB: Tell me about your relationship with
Ellis: We started out back in the late 80ís early 90ís playing
open micís, and we bumped into each other at this little open mic in
Brighton called the Naked City Coffee House. Itís was basically in the
hallway of a building and people just sat around a suitcase with some
candles on it and sand songs. It went from being just a handful of
people to about 150. He and I got signed to Rounder about the same time
and became great friends. We started doing shows together side by side,
and we decided that we would start touring together, and now itís a
fairly common thing for us to be on stage side by side with each other.
Itís been fun.
BB: How does his music differ from yours?
How does it blend do you think?
Ellis: Itís great, weíre very different people. Heís from Philly,
heís African American, he was into a lot of Philly soul stations and has
some cabernet theatrical stuff in his back ground, so he is in touch
with that kind of music. Iím pretty much a northern Maine country boy
with just folk rock influences. We come from pretty broad spectrums. The
chemistry is really good musically, and friendship-wise. I think that
translates well to the stage.
BB: Tell me about your audience. What are
your fans like?
Ellis: Itís pretty broad. I get a lot of people who are in there
forties, fifties, and sixties who were kind of old school folkies in the
60ís and 70ís. And a handful of people in my peer group, and then a
bunch of young people. So I think among folk musicians I have a pretty
broad audience, age-wise. I get a lot of college and high school kids,
and people who are in their twenties who are interested in what Iím
doing. Itís not like when you go to some folk show and see a bunch of
bald gray-haired men and women out there. My show has a sprinkling of
those people, but itís pretty broad.
BB: Any interesting stories from your
relationships with the audience members?
Ellis: Yeah, people have incorporated me into their lives enough
for me to be invited to do weddings, and Iíve even been asked to
officiate weddings. Itís pretty funny having no religious background or
that kind of thing. That kind of stuff has happened, and Iím just
amazed. I meet a lot of people who go to show after show after show.
Iíve got a handful of people who have been to over 100 shows, which I
could expect with a band like the Grateful Dead, or for some kind of
rock band thatís really changing things up every night. Iím really
surprised at how dedicated people are, who follow me around. Itís just
me with a guitar generally; itís not like a flashy stage production.
THE BOSTON MUSIC SCENE
BB: What are some of your favorite places to
play in Boston?
Ellis: Club Passim, I love. The Somerville Theatre, itís an
amazing little theatre. But Club Passim I like a lot. It got a great
energy and great history there.
BB: How do you think the Boston music scene
has changed since you first started playing here?
Ellis: When I first started playing there werenít anywhere as
near as many singer songwriters. I think the Boston songwriter scene
really kind of grew out of this wake that Patti Larkin and Bill
Morrissey and the radio stations created in the 80ís. And after them
came me and Vance Gilbert. Patty Griffin, Martin Sexton and Jonatha
Brooke and The Story and a bunch of other people who ended up having
long careers in this. And we were followed by an even greater sloth of
people that include Mark Erelli, Kris Delmhorst, and Peter Mulvey and a
bunch of other folks. The Boston folk music scene is really the wealth
spring of the national folk music scene, all of us who graduate from
Boston and go on to traveling the country. I think probably 70% of all
the touring folk musicians in the country come out of the Boston folk
BB: What are your favorite local bands or
Ellis: Right now Iím listening to Sarah Burgess, whoís coming out
with a new album, and Iím a big fan of Kris Delmhorst. My Friend Flynn
is putting out a record as well, which I think is amazing. And a band
BB: How would you compare the Boston music
scene to other cities youíve played in?
Ellis: Well, I think the great thing about the Boston music scene
is that itís not so structured around one kind of music. There is a
great hip-hop scene going on. Thereís is a great folk music scene going
on, and thereís a great rock scene going on. And the people who are
stars in each one of those genres are given equal weight in the papers
and on the radio, and in the amount of people that come out. You go to a
place like Seattle, and one type of music does really well and the rest
kind of suffer behind. I think Bostonís got a really cool eclectic music
scene, and I got to say itís probably outside of Nashville or Austin
itís got the best singer-songwriter scene in the country.
BB: If you could play on stage with anyone
alive who would it be?
Ellis: I guess Iíd go toward Van Morrison, Dylan, and Neil Young.
Theyíre kind of tied for first place. Those guys are my big heroes.
BB: What do you hope to be doing in music in
a few years? What do you hope to have accomplished in a couple years
Ellis: Well, Iíd like to tour more. Iíd like to break into Europe
a little bit more and do some touring there. Iíd like to get some of my
songs covered by bigger artists, which would be great. But Iím pretty
happy. I have a good following and Iím making a good living and I am
able to do music. I have been able to do it for 20 years, and that puts
me in a pretty slim percentile of people. So if nothing changes Iíd be
happy to say Iíve done what Iíve done.
BB: What do you hope people will get out of
Ellis: I hope they connect to it, that the songs they can
associate to their own lives. I hope they adopt the songs enough so that
they become a soundtrack to their lives. I donít care really if they
make love or have babies or do the dishes to it, as long as theyíre
BB: What advice would you have for inspiring
Ellis: Listen a lot. Listen to whatever you think are great songs
and learn as much as you can about why theyíre great, because the songs
really drive your career. If you do write great songs then youíre going
to survive, if you donít then you wonít. It doesnít matter if youíre a
great guitar player or a great singer. Without great songs you really
canít get too far.
BB: Thank you for talking with Boston Beats.
Ellis: Well, all right man. Thank you so much for putting me
BB: Youíre very welcome.
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