LIVE: Tinsley Ellis and Tommy Castro Give Blues Rock New Life @ Cohoes Music Hall, 11/20/2019

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The stage to Tinsley Ellis is not where he acts out his music.  It’s life itself. More essential than breathing. I took my friend Vito Ciccarelli to Cohoes Music Hall Wednesday night, November 20, to see Tinsley currently on tour with Tommy Castro.  Vito is a one-man musical Chamber of Commerce for Rensselaer County. A former rock guitarist, he’s spent the last decade booking numerous venues with artists – local, regional and national – who live it, too. So, I asked him what it was that made Tinsley’s set special.

“His heart, head and hands are totally in synch,” was Vito’s answer. After Tinsley’s set, I complimented him. “You’re livin’ it,” I told him. Without stopping to think about it and with none of the emotion he bleeds out on stage, he said simply, “Yeah, well the other 23 hours a day pretty much blow.” 

He IS the ultimate road warrior.

From Atlanta, Georgia, he’s played every back-water gin mill, concert hall, and blues festival in the country for three decades. Castro commented that he, Castro, had been performing for 25 years and Tinsley had him beat. I can remember having Tinsley on my Backstage Pass show on WXLE about 1991. I had an advance on his then current album, played it on the air, and he rushed out of the studio to his car to hear how it sounded over tin speakers the way the average Joe hears his music. Tinsley not only remembers the night, but he recalls which song it was. “Under the willows” is the way he refers to that night. He’d parked his car under a willow tree. 

“New York is a great state for southern rock and blues,” he reminded me before the show Wednesday night. “The Allman Brothers considered it their second home.” “Yeah,” I told him. “They played Saratoga in 1969. I can remember seeing them headline over the J, Geils Band at Hudson Community College in 1971.”

Tinsley had four guitars lined up next to him on stage. “I didn’t bring ’em not to play ’em,” he told a sparse crowd that didn’t half fill the hall. It was hump day in upstate New York. Buddy Guy had thrilled a crowd at the Palace in Albany the night before. So, the audience was hardcore die hards. Tinsley stood straight up, his long grizzled grey hair tied in a ponytail. Dressed in a nondescript dark shirt and trousers, he hit the first note, and we were off, zero to 60 in two seconds.

Tinsley’s been signed to Alligator Records three times, the last time after a few years as an indie. “Alligator boss,” as label head Bruce Iglauer calls himself, is a survivor, too. He only signs acts that support their record release with extensive tours and sell lots of product on the road. Tinsley is the only wanderer Bruce has invited back twice. 

Tinsley’s music on first listen is boilerplate blues rock. Bikers love him. But listening to him bleed out his soul to a chosen few on that stage on a cold Wednesday night caused me to really understand his songs as personal therapy. He played music from his latest Winning Hand album along with songs from a legacy of 30 years, tales of heartache, intimate revelations of life’s ups and downs. He ended his set on a Gibson knockoff of a Flying V on slide. He called the song “house rocking’ music.” Hound Dog Taylor was the first artist Iglauer signed to his fledgling label in 1971 with a small inheritance from his late dad. Genuine Houserocking Music is the name of Hound Dog’s fourth release on Alligator in 1982.

I had high expectations for this concert. I’d seen Tommy Castro and Mike Zito vamp off each other a couple of years ago, and I knew Castro enjoyed being egged on by fellow guitarists who ply their trade on the highways the way he does. Castro has no discernable ego and gives his stage mates lots of space when they play together. His set with Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band a year ago at the Chenango Blues Festival was better than the last J. Geils tour, even with Peter Wolf fronting that band. So, I was expecting fireworks but not nuclear fission.

Castro writes everyman rockin’ blues anthems and talks to his audience between numbers. He knows what we like, and he gives it to us with no apologies. His best song of the set was an uncharacteristic mid-tempo rocker about his childhood growing up on the West Coast and being sent to the store by his mom to buy milk and Pall Malls.

After two separate sets by each, Tommy called Tinsley back up and they jammed together, first with Castro’s Painkillers band and then with Tinsley’s power trio. They ended the night with the best cover of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” I’ve heard outside of Mississippi, culminating almost three hours of the kind of show that gives blues rock promise of eternal life. 

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