John McCauley and Robert Ellis at The Stone Fox, 1/23/13

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We stepped into The Stone Fox Wednesday night and shook off the cold a few minutes before 9 p.m., and the room was already packed to the walls. The Spin makes it a point to visit on a regular basis, and every time there’s a different crowd. Wednesday’s pairing of world-famous singer-songwriters brought out everyone from back-patched bikers to bros YOLO-ing in their polos and patrician Venuses in faux furs. There would be no well-oiled rhythm sections, no elaborate production, no beautiful harmonies — just two dudes, each one singing with an acoustic guitar for company.

What was it about this anti-spectacle — put together by musicians' mag American Songwriter — that would attract such a big, broad crowd? Around rock o’clock, the well-traveled Robert Ellis took the stage and gave us part of the answer. His stage presence gave his young age the lie: Not unlike Robert Plant, Ellis shocked us when his banter revealed that his speaking voice is entirely different from the heartbroken twang he inhabits so completely. From the very first song, “Westbound Train,” the crowd followed his dynamic, ceasing their chatter whenever he would sing softly — they didn’t want to miss the familiar characters’ stories that he was busy bringing to life.

Ellis' catalog is mostly autobiographical, brimming with good guys who have roguish touches. At day’s end, they just want to be loved for who they are, and for their loving to sustain their relationships through the hard times — a sentiment that almost all of us can latch onto. “Two Cans of Paint” simultaneously turned an everyday item into a symbol of the emotional roller coaster that is making a new start, and by highlighting the significance of something so essentially mundane, he reminded us that real life is pretty damn dramatic by itself. It’s what inspires our songs, after all!

Ellis’ playing was also an exercise in elegance, seamlessly incorporating complicated jazz chords, flamenco flourishes, and warp-speed bluegrass runs. With this arsenal, he implicitly imitated nearly every great songwriter from the second half of the 20th century, from big-name heroes like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt to Randy Newman, whose “Marie” he dropped mid-set. Ellis is nuanced, reverent and polished without going overboard. He knows how to work a mic and a crowd, appearing genuinely amazed at his own skill; following the cheers greeting an uptempo number, he reflected aloud, “I only have two fast songs. See the difference in the audience response?” The title track from his 2011 album Photographs may prove to be his “Gentle on My Mind,” the oft-covered evergreen that enabled banjo virtuoso John Hartford to write and play whatever he liked for the rest of his career.

John McCauley, on the other hand, was just having a good time being himself: He wasn’t playing a character at all, or if he was, he fooled us completely. There was no difference between this scruffy guy who had trouble keeping his guitar in tune and remembering all of his lyrics here at our corner pub and the scruffy guy who played Carnegie Hall last October. If getting a little tipsy and goofing up every once in a while is what it takes to make the song personal and direct, so be it. This music is McCauley’s life: All of the tattered relationships and hangovers he’s racked up across the globe with Deer Tick, Middle Brother and Diamond Rugs come pouring out without artifice. He’s already been all of the places that Ellis and the rest of us have been or will go, and this is his way of making sense of it all, from opener “Baltimore Blues No. 1” to the stomp-inspiring “Christ Jesus” near the end of his set. It was plain there was no place McCauley would rather be: He had been on stage for two hours, and was still happily taking requests at 1 a.m., when the house engineer politely asked him to wrap it up.

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