A FEW MINUTES WITH… Tinsley Ellis
By Don Wilcock
Blues rocker Tinsley Ellis’ new album, Winning Hand, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Blues Charts this week. He performs live at The Linda in Albany Friday night (January 26), an early stop on a four-month North American tour.
“This tour we’re staying gone the whole time and right at the beginning of a new CD,” Ellis says. “I think that if there’s a way to market new music, it is by taking it to the people. And I haven’t done a tour like this in 20 years. I think I can still do it. Ask me in three months.”
Winning Hand marks his third signing with Alligator Records, the premier blues label. Curtis Salgado & Alan Hager’s Rough Cut also released this month on the label debuted at No. 2, and Tommy Castro & The Painkillers’ Stompin’ Ground, released in September 29, currently holds the No. 7 spot, re-emerging after spending seven previous weeks on the chart.
Ellis’ new CD plays to his strength as a veteran blues-rock guitarist who can’t wait to play this particular gig. “I love Albany,” he says. “And I love New York. New York loves southern music.”
This stop on the tour in an extremely intimate setting. He corrects me when I estimate that the Linda holds 100 people. “275,” he says without hesitation. He should know; Friday marks his third annual visit to WAMC-FM’s performance venue.
Ellis is on the road to promote one of his best albums in years on the Alligator label run by Bruce Iglauer, who has a sixth sense about releasing the best in blues. “I have my own label (Heartfixer) that fits the music. And I still have it. I’m just not on it,” says Ellis. “They (Alligator) were doing my mail order for Heartfixer Music, and so we’ve always had a relationship. I’ve sent Bruce each of the albums I’ve made, and he made an offer on Tough Love, which is the biggest album I’ve put out on my own. I didn’t take it, and I regretted that because I think he really would have done great with that particular album, and so I said, ‘If he makes an offer again, I think I should take it.’ And lo and behold, he made a really nice offer, and on this one, he feels very strongly about it.”
The hottest cut on the new CD is “Saving Grace.” “That’s probably my favorite track on the album. Back in the day, you would have made that a side-closer. Remember we’d have an album, and the very best song on an album side would be some kind of long emotional piece of music, and you would listen to that and drift off to sleep where with the CD you only get one side – there is only one – so that’s the logical place for a song like that. It’s a song I will enjoy performing live. It was singled out by Bruce at Alligator as the reason to want to put the album out. It actually is a song more of the Hendrix/Robin Trower variety because I used a pedal on it which simulates the slow speed of a Leslie.”
Ellis went professional at age 24 in 1981 forming The Heartfixers, who became one of the most popular blues bands in the south in two years, backed up blues veteran Nappy Brown on his 1984 comeback album Tore Up, and debuted his vocals on the group’s 1986 album Cool on It, which brought him to the attention of Alligator Records. Winning Hand is his 17th solo album.
The four-month tour began earlier this month in his hometown of Atlanta and runs through April 4 at Antone’s in Austin with stops in between at the Winter Blues Festival in North Dakota; the City Winery in Boston; the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, California; the Cadillac Lounge in Toronto and more.
Ellis’ hard driving guitar style is popular with bikers, and his pedigree is unquestionable. In 2013 at age 56, he was the youngest guy on the bill for the Blues at The Crossroads 2 tour with veterans James Cotton, Bob Margolin, Jody Williams and Kim Wilson with the Fabulous Thunderbirds backing. “They were calling me Sonny Boy and Whipper Snapper and things like that. They really busted my balls, too, but I’m a better man for it.”
Last year he fronted the Blues Is Dead tour. “It was really fun. I didn’t have a new album out last year and doing just some things for fun and put together just a different collection of musicians. We went out and played blues songs that had been covered by the Grateful Dead, and then we stretched it out to include other bands from the Fillmore era like Hot Tuna and Cream, and we just went out and really jammed it out. It was the youngest audience I’ve played in front of for 30 years. There were people with tie-dyes twirling around, and I’m thinking, ‘You know, young jam band people they love blues. They just don’t know that’s what they’re listening to.’
“We were doing songs like ‘Spoonful,’ ‘I’m So Glad,’ old blues covers, but we were jamming out on it. Looking back on it, our music was probably more influenced by the early Allman Brothers Band than by the Grateful Dead, but we thought the tongue-in-cheek name Blues Is Dead was too good not to use.”
The stars are all aligned for Tinsley Ellis to take on the role perhaps not of elder statesman, but certainly one of the ranking highwaymen who carry the torch for the mature genre of the rockin’ blues.