Heartfixer Music, 2014
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.
Review copy of the CD was provided by the publicity firm Blind Raccoon.