Tinsley Ellis • Midnight Blue

Tinsley Ellis Midnight Blue Front Cover Square

TINSLEY ELLIS

Midnight Blue

Heartfixer Music, 2014

http://tinsleyellis.com/

In 2013, Tinsley Ellis released Get It, an all-instrumental album, somewhat unexpectedly composed of straightforward blues and rootsy rock songs. Now he returns with something more in line with what we have come to expect from him over 15 or so records and about 30 years in the trenches. Midnight Blue makes an emphatic statement confirming Ellis’s position not only as one of our great guitarists, but as a superior writer and singer of straight-ahead postwar electric blues and rock. Perhaps at the sacrifice of some accuracy, I’m going to cover what Ellis and company are up to under the umbrellas of three broadly defined styles.

Long acclaimed as one of the most intense and creative artists in blues rock, Ellis is assured enough to open Midnight Blue with a relatively slow number, “If The River Keeps Rising,” which starts with just his rhythmic but delicate acoustic guitar and plaintive vocal. When the band comes in after the first verse, the sound explodes into a bluesy slam, à la Zeppelin’s treatment of “When The Levee Breaks,” replete with Lynn Williams’s Bonham-worthy drumming and several thickly overdriven electric guitars woven into the mix. Between its melodic sense and guitar work that, in its phrasing and high gain tonality, recall strongly Eric Clapton’s late-‘80s Journeyman period, “Harder To Find” is an affecting and atmospheric midtempo rock ballad, with an absolutely lovely middle section and chorus. Touches like a slow-wash sound that might come from a Leslie cabinet are emblematic of the attention to sonic detail on this record.  “The Only Thing” is a solid blues shuffle with stops, very much in the vein of “I Ain’t Superstitious,” that splits the difference between Howlin’ Wolf and the Jeff Beck Group. Ellis’s toppy lead guitar sound pushes it perhaps in the direction of the latter, while “Mouth Turn Dry,” a Wolf-like stomp, sports wiry guitar breaks that recall both Hubert Sumlin (naturally) and Otis Rush. Its powerful lyric touches on romantic doubt, self-centered fear, and the dangers of drink. “That’s My Story” is a heavy rocker on the slower side, set to the pulse of a steady eighth-note bass pedal, with a superb guitar ride-out that focuses more on rhythm and feel than flash. While its edgy groove doesn’t really sound like anything I would expect from Tinsley–something like AC/DC, but with a swampy CCR vibe–it is excellent.

At times, Ellis has dabbled in R&B and even soul. He returns to those styles here with “It’s Not Funny,” which features a second line beat, direct from New Orleans. The mid-song breakdown is just part of hip overall rhythm arrangement, rounded out by Ellis’s tough, Lowell George-inflected slide guitar and the song’s “Iko Iko” family feel. Its title reflects perhaps the most obvious and clever turn of phrase that should have been written into a song years ago, but wasn’t. Great call, Mr. Ellis–that is how to do it! “Surrender” is a pulsing, slow- to midtempo track with a decidedly soulful edge; call it Boz Scaggs meeting Dire Straits at their dreamiest, or something The Wallflowers might once have cut. Perfect R&B-based fills and a melodic lead guitar that escalates in intensity accompany Ellis’s quiet, honest, vocal–a performance that fits the song beautifully. The ascending chord pattern behind the likewise beautifully sung “Peace And Love” comes from somewhere in the ‘60s soul universe. Its funky, Muscle Shoals feel, accentuated by Kevin McKendree’s organ and electric piano, is cast into interesting contrast by Ted Pecchio’s very Beatles-esque bass line.

About this time last year, Ellis described himself to me, I thought apologetically, as “the rock guy” in the Blues At The Crossroads 2 package, a tour that featured The Fabulous Thunderbirds in support of guests James Cotton, Jody Williams, Bob Margolin, and Ellis. The conversation took place just moments after he had delivered a set of stellar pure blues, beautiful and savage by turn. Here, he does it on “Kiss Of Death,” a spare slow blues taken at a funereal pace, much in the mode of “Double Trouble”–I mean the timeless Otis Rush song, not SRV, folks–and does it just right. The stark, late-night ballad “See No Harm” borrows its elegant, emotional changes from Ray Charles at his most gospel-drenched, back in the Atlantic days, and rivals Brother Ray for feel and passion. Believe me, I would never type that if I didn’t mean it. This is killer stuff. McKendree’s piano is sublime, and Ellis’s fills and solo are tough and to the point without breaking the mood in the slightest; his guitar tone is woody and appropriately old school. Bravo! Never mind his history with the Heartfixers; let no one suggest that Ellis in 2014 cannot sing and play blues with the best.

I am afraid that, over the years, I forgot just how good Tinsley Ellis could be, or at least began to take him for granted. His recent work has made my lapse impossible to sustain. Anyone who likes blues-based music should find much to appreciate on the excellent Midnight Blue.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy of the CD was provided by the publicity firm Blind Raccoon.

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Texas Cannonballs

cannonballs

Texas Cannonballs

Texas Cannonballs

Rock ’n’ Roll Saves Production, 2013

texascannonballs.blogspot.com

To order CDs, contact danherbert40@me.com

Unite Hector Watt, a veteran of Austin’s Solid Senders, the band that perhaps sounded the most like the Fabulous Thunderbirds that was not the Fabulous Thunderbirds; Chris Ruest, who has been quietly building a reputation as one of the toughest blues guitar players on either side of the Atlantic; and the truly legendary Preston Hubbard, whose résumé includes Roomful of Blues, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Nick Curran’s Nite Lifes, Los Carnales, and many other projects elevated by his low frequency work; and you have the core of Texas Cannonballs. Despite possessing the makings of a top-flight blues outfit, and although they share their name with a well-known, late-period album by Freddie King, the Cannonballs’ new project is cut from a pattern of dangerous rock ‘n’ roll.

The riddle at first seems insoluble. Why would three players of such esteem turn away from the blues? To Watt, who shares guitar and vocal duties with Ruest, the answer is a simple desire to change things up a bit. “A 100 percent blues album was out of the question. It’s been done over and over, time and time before,” he told Ellie Rumbold of forfolkssake.com. And while a blues recording from these musicians could hardly have disappointed, we can be grateful for the Cannonballs’ decision to move in another direction. Their self-titled début delivers thirteen songs that emerge hard-edged from the speakers, glinting like switchblades under streetlamps.

With the exception of the two numbers by Jerry McCain–an unhinged, Cramps-worthy take on “I Want Somebody To Love” that ups the ante on the original, and a blistering “Geronimo Rock”–that set the table for the rest of the set, Ruest and Watt split the songwriting more or less equally. The album opens with Watt’s “Fly Away,” a swampy track with a loping, soulful groove, and stinging lead guitars. His “Hard Way,” an infectious, bouncing roots-rocker co-written with Lou Ann Barton, feels rowdy as a lost McCain tune and recalls the Stones at their Chuck Berry-inspired best. Along the same lines is “Me and the Devil,” a swaggering number enhanced by Temple Ray’s backing vocals. “Texas Tumbleweed” features prominent slide guitars straight out of Mick Taylor-era Stones (“All Down The Line”), and sounds like something Doug Sahm might have cooked up with one of Alejandro Escovedo’s old bands (Rank and File or True Believers, take your pick). “King of the Jungle” rides a chunky, push-pull rhythm, very vaguely reminiscent of “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” and has a great lyric; I can’t decide whether the guitars or the vocal have more snap and snarl. Also snarling is the ominous “King of the Blues,” an oily, garage blues worthy of Iggy and the Stooges. The prisoner’s lament “Dreaming” closes out the program with a quiet, acoustic arrangement that blends Stones-y country elements with notes of Johnny Thunders’s occasional ballads.

Ruest proves to be no slouch in the Stones department, with his amazing “One Slip” showing off some of the chunkiest Keith-inspired riffs on record. He also contributes “Blew My Head,” a slinky, riff-based rocker à la the T-Birds’ “Powerful Stuff,” but with a distinctly darker mood. Just as complex is “Nobody Cares About Me,” a chugging, R&B-inflected rocker, downshifts into a minor key, complete with spooky, raked chords, for the choruses. His “I Was Wrong,” another minor number, is the closest thing to a pure blues among the original compositions. Its feel shifts dramatically from stop-time verses to a shuffle feel during the choruses and the dynamic solo break. Neither of these songs would sound out of place on a record by the mighty Paladins.

I have dropped a lot of names during the course of this recap, solely in the interest of providing some kind of frame of reference–signposts marking the general territories in which Texas Cannonballs work. The Cannonballs have in fact made something quite original of familiar materials. Think of the Flamin’ Groovies jamming with Omar and the Howlers, and you might come close to the soundscape they have created. It is raw yet sleek, with an underlying sense of menace and drive rarely heard since Exile On Main Street, and unrelentingly cool.

TOM HYSLOP

The CD for this review was kindly provided by the band’s management.

(Note: Jim Starboard drummed on the CD; the band’s Facebook page indicates Hugo Devier is the regular drummer. Also, the printed CD cover lists the first four tracks incorrectly. #4 and #1 are reversed, as are #2 and #3.)

On The Verge

on the verge

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

On The Verge

Severn Records, 2013

http://fabulousthunderbirds.com/

http://severnrecords.com/

As the Fabulous Thunderbirds near their 40th anniversary, the only constant in the band’s lineup is its front man, Kim Wilson. The extraordinary singer and harmonica wizard has his pick of the very best players, from among whom he chooses exceedingly wisely, and clearly exercises absolute control over the unit’s vision and sound, which has remained for the most part very consistent through years of personnel changes. Until now. On their new album, the Fabulous Thunderbirds expand the flirtation with soul music that provided a hit in the 1980s (their cover of Sam & Dave’s “Wrap It Up”) into a full-fledged courtship. The band’s once stripped-down sound is fleshed out with the addition of keyboards, backing vocals, percussion, and a four-piece horn section, and the ten new songs comprising On The Verge, most of them written by Wilson, with help from guest keyboardist Kevin Anker and Severn regulars David Earl and Steve Gomes, explore soul and R&B from a number of angles.

Wilson sings for all he is worth on the opener, “I Want To Believe,” a midtempo number with a determinedly positive message and an insistent, Stax-y push-pull feel reminiscent of the funkiest Otis Redding and Staple Singer grooves. Bassist Randy Bermudes’ terrific “Runnin’ From The Blues” gets a country soul treatment much in the vein of Joe Simon’s immortal “The Chokin’ Kind,” pulled together with twangy, deep-set guitar hooks. “Hold Me” is in the vein of artists like Clarence Carter. The interesting Kevin Anker piano figure that appears in the introduction and during the choruses lacks a dominant tonality, and is a bit unsettling in this traditional Southern soul context.

Several dark threads run through On The Verge. Over a slinky, minor key groove that tops the feel of Bobby Bland’s “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog” with some special O.V. Wright sauce, “Too Much Water” chronicles the end of a relationship. The album’s closer, “Lonely Highway,” is an excellent slow number with moody horns, again reminiscent of O.V.’s Hi Records sides. And while many blues have dealt with poverty, few have presented the situation as starkly as “Do You Know Who I Am,” a stately soul ballad that calls for understanding and help from the vantage of the economically deprived, unemployed, and homeless.

“Got To Bring It With You” serves up dirty funk that marries wah-wah guitar to a horn chart that stepped straight out of an Al Green or O.V. session. Its simple guitar solo is more thematic than improvisational. “That’s The Way We Roll” is even more lowdown–this is heavy, trailer park funk, baby, with a slow-dragging, syncopated groove. Wilson blows minimalistic, distorted harp, and sings through the harp microphone for extra grease. At the other end of the R&B spectrum, “Lovin’ Time” has a pop-inflected melody that befits the lyric’s fond reminiscences. Smooth electric piano and organ, hand drums, and the airy, interlocking guitars form a distinctive arrangement. Gomes’s “Diamonds Won’t Kiss You Back,” with its intricate guitar and bass parts, catchy, riffing horns, and beautiful, melodic vocal line, is sweet soul directly from the Chicago school.

One observation: Although The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ last two lineups have featured some of most exciting guitar players on the planet, Wilson has seemed oddly reluctant to let them loose on record (this is emphatically not the case in concert). Nick Curran and Kirk Fletcher were largely indistinguishable from each other on Painted On, and while Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller’s guitar parts are crucial to the new CD’s sound (and often quite memorable), virtually no lead guitar can be heard, even though this style of music can certainly lends itself to instrumental breaks–just listen to Stax-era Albert King, anything Little Milton cut after the mid-1960s, or recent albums by, for instance, John Németh. Wilson himself barely cuts loose on his instrument. I’ll extend this line of thinking to include the rhythm section: Jason Moeller, one of the world’s premier shuffle drummers, doesn’t get to drive one home. While I can appreciate the focus on the songwriting and singing, it seems a shame that Wilson passed up the opportunity to record this hot lineup really showing its stuff.

That may well be a churlish attitude, as the album sounds fine the way it has been delivered. While there is the risk that On The Verge will alienate longtime fans who prefer to hear the tough, butt-rockin’ blues on which the T-Birds built their reputation, its tilt to the soulful side of the blues makes for a cohesive and successful album. Its polish, inherent tunefulness, and creamy feel should win the Fabulous Thunderbirds additional fans.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.