Something akin to an apparition graces the stage of the Aladdin this week: a group that hasn't performed together since its debut 30 years ago (when almost nobody cared), flying under the radar of an industry that's ignored them all along.
You could call the Flatlanders a reverse supergroup. The band's lone album was released in 1971--but only on a limited run of eight-track tapes. The band's three bright young singer-picker-songwriters scattered like Texas tumbleweeds in the following years. One of them, Joe Ely, unexpectedly found himself the darling of England's punk scene in the late '70s, prompting a belated British issue of the Flatlanders' forgotten work.
What listeners heard then was a sound like no other, austere and meditative like the timeless recordings of country godparents the Carter Family and Hank Williams, but invested with a modern and subtly spiritual lyrical consciousness. A lanky Texan Buddhist named Jimmie Dale Gilmore sang lead in a voice almost as weird and tremulous as the musical saw that adorned several tracks.
Gilmore and Butch Hancock wrote most of the songs, and together with Ely they radiated a chemistry that shone past the album's obscure origins.
It would be 17 years before Gilmore recorded again (and almost 20 before the Flatlanders' album was properly issued in its homeland, by Rounder in 1990), yet the band's mystique persisted. Eventually, the trio was tapped to contribute to the soundtrack of Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. This, in turn, brought about a summer concert in Central Park and a half-page feature in The New York Times. Theaters nationwide suddenly called, asking how they, too, could book the Flatlanders. On a lark, the old friends decided to make the rounds.
"We'd come to a town," says Ely, "and the radio stations would say 'Why are you guys out on the road?' We'd say, 'Because we like to play.' They'd say, 'But you're not selling anything!' We said, 'Exactly!'"
Gilmore agrees that the group has consistently been motivated by aesthetic, not economic, concerns. "We always placed love of the music above whether it was going to be popular or commercially viable," he says. "I think for that reason there was a quality in it that has held up for a really long time."
This time, the three are writing together as well as playing together, and they sound proud of the results.
"They're very good, if I may say so," says Gilmore of the new tunes composing the lion's share of the group's current set. "We have a pool of talent among us that we're using to our best advantage now. We're old enough to be disciplined about it, and at the same time we're just crazy, so we get to have originality and organization."
By the band's own peculiar timeline, the Flatlanders appear to be right on schedule. "There'll be a [new] record out," says Ely. "Sometime."
Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 224-4400. 8 pm Tuesday, June 5. $16.50 advance, $18 day of show.
An entire unreleased album, which the Flatlanders recorded prior to their debut, was recently discovered in the vaults. The group plans to put it out sometime in the future.