This maestro’s not your typical electric bluesman, either. Live at Toronto’s Cadillac Lounge on Jan. 29, the Ellis trio blew out the sky. Following the review, check out a selection of smokin’ audio and video.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM
I don’t know about you, but my measure of a professional musician is measured by the degree of what the artist invests into a show, regardless of audience size. Tinsley Ellis plays for his fans – and, given their elevated expectations, he simply doesn’t mess around by ever calling it in. Such was the scenario on a very snowy night in Toronto as Ellis, drummer Erik Kaszynski and bassist Kevan McCann ripped a tidy hole in the ozone above this smallish club that, nonetheless, teemed with potential. Sixteen songs later, that potential was realized, convincingly so.
Local hero Al Lerman (Fathead) began the night with a set of mostly self-penned acoustic blues supplemented by his smile-inducing asides, adding the zest of his superior harp-playing to songs like “A Few More Miles To Go”, Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go” and a head-turning closer in “You Sure Look Fine To Me” – a tribute to mentor Sonny Terry.
Tinsley Ellis arrives with much critical acclaim, yet true fans justifiably think of him as being light years beyond the narrow category of blues-rocker that seems to dog his hefty catalogue. Guitarist, singer, songwriter and force of nature behind 20+ releases, Ellis channels everyone from B.B. and Freddie King to Muddy Waters, Carlos Santana, Robin Trower, Robert Cray, Rory Gallagher and Peter Green across an equally diverse choice of guitars, each with their different voices. Everything that goes into the Ellis blender comes out distinctively Ellis-like and, given his rich, southern heritage, it’s little surprise you’ll find clips of him onstage with the Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Albert Castiglias of this world. Part of the thrill of seeing him live is the fact that you’re never really sure ‘which Tinsley’ you’ll get in a live setting as he has so many points to draw from. On this occasion, Tinsley and band came on strong, sporting the powerful lead track off his latest album (Winning Hand). “Sound of a Broken Man” might well be the quintessential Ellis track, its mid-tempo groove setting up his trademarked, razor-sharp leads, well-matched to his equally emotive, rough-hewn vocal rasp. Divided into two sections by searing solos, Ellis leans into his trusty wah-wah pedal, turning something old into something new again. In no time, this meaty trio had driven up the room temperature.
Jumping directly into “The Other Side” from ‘09’s Speak No Evil, Ellis’ tough guitar lines, again offset by his throaty baritone, provided the trio something equally solid to bite into. “Saving Grace” from the new album, provided an opportunity to slow things down considerably – when Ellis’ creative fretwork shines its brightest and works best with his surprisingly soulful vocals – the song assuming a definitive Trower-esque vibe. Clearly in warm-up mode and suffering from some laryngitis, Ellis’ vocals were uncharacteristically rough in the top end, yet he soon regained control for the balance of the show, evidenced in his powerful take on Mel London’s Chicago classic, “Cut You Loose” (Storm Warning) – encouraging the audience to clap along with his jaunty, amped-up version.
Tracks from Storm Warning continued with the muscular “To The Devil For A Dime”, stretching it out to showcase Kazynski’s fat drum sound while adding more wah-wah back into the mix. More Storm Warning with “A Quitter Never Wins” proving, once again, that Ellis’ 6-stringed ferocity is at its best when things slow down, allowing him time to dig deep with equal parts shred and simmer – the song’s blistering solos offering a warming antidote to the wintery bluster outside. Cue Tough Love’s upbeat “Midnight Ride” – a boogie with a lighter touch – as stinging leads worked to offset Ellis’ lack of top-end vocal range. Problem solved with the jaw-dropping rendition of the delicious “Catalunya” – a Latin-tinged, Santana-esque show-stopper from Ellis’ all-instrumental Get It! – that proved one the evening’s highlights. As he is also a longtime Freddie King fan, “Double-eyed Whammy” from ‘89’s Georgia Blue proved the perfect vehicle for his lower-register growl as the rhythm section dug deep and Ellis offered one-handed solos, spellbinding, single note sustains and leads triggered by altered tunings. Another showcase tune was “Gamblin’ Man” from the new release – its slow pace setting up a solid, heartfelt vocal performance and more standout solo work which, at one point, conjured the effect of crying sounds from distant seagulls. Despite missing the substantial B3 contributions of keyboardist Kevin McKendree on the album version, there was zero compromise in what was presented live – reminding all that the caliber of sounds generated by this three-piece sounded like so much more.
Without so much as a break, Ellis underlined his role as the last of the southern gentlemen by asking if the audience would mind if he switched over to a satisfy an acoustic request or two on his National Steel. Incredible – would we mind? Buoyed by the crowd’s favorable response, Ellis told insightful stories of meeting Muddy Waters, B.B. King, James Cotton and almost meeting the darkly intimidating Howlin’ Wolf – again, to great audience response, rendered all the more special given that Ellis seemed honestly surprised by the positive reaction. A rousing version of Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” chased Burnett’s “Little Red Rooster” and, because he seemed to be having so much fun on this acoustic sidebar, the newly-anointed King of Just One More added his own “Shadow of Doubt” from Moment of Truth, teased with plenty of slide.
Without skipping a beat, the band returned to an electric barrage with Live! Highwayman’s title track, a wah-wah-driven boogie that pushed Ellis’ vocal to the breaking point, quickly redeemed by the hearty, harder-edged “Pawnbroker” from ‘89’s Fanning The Flames. The ensuing encore coaxed a stirring version of “Rockslide” from ‘09’s Speak No Evil, bringing the evening of inventive, smoldering guitar, bass and drums to its inevitable climax. There was nothing more for these talented players to do but to absorb their well-earned drinks and meet ’n’ greet the party faithful before heading back out into the snow to make their way on to Chicago.
Make no mistake. This is not your typical night of electric blues – and far from anything as restrictive as that imposed by the ‘blues-rock’ category. Tinsley Ellis is nothing less than the many influences and styles he continuously and rigorously morphs into what has become his own very personal, inimitable identity. Forever the music fan, Ellis’ natural discovery of British invasion blues and his deep love for America’s original blues heroes joins his southern heritage and natural affection for southern rock, soul, r ’n’ b and country. Add this to his impressive arsenal of self-penned originals, a studied blend of multiple guitars each possessed of their own distinctive voices in addition to his own and, adding in a sea of imaginative effects, you’ve just had a night to remember.
Ed. note: Ellis has been dealing a winning hand for several decades now and he simply gets better and better – I say this as a longtime fan who used to see him at the tiny-but-venerable Double Door Inn in Charlotte, NC, way back in the ’80s. It’s eternally gratifying to know that he continues to tour and record and make fans across the globe. (-FM) For tour dates and more: http://www.tinsleyellis.com/