Tinsley Ellis: The Hard Way

[14 June 2004]

By Jason MacNeil

Tinsley Ellis’ ninth album picks up pretty much where he left off with his quasi-breakthrough Hell Or High Water. Like all good blues musicians, he sings from the soul and unlike most blues musicians, you can tell that he either practices what he preaches or says what he means. While some might compare this to a polished and slick rehashed effort of Clapton-esque blues-rock, Ellis delivers the album about “singing the devil song” in a vein that Delbert McClinton would eat up. This is especially true on the slightly Southern, slightly sultry soul of “Still in the Game”. Not one to blow you away with meticulous classical rock guitar à la Satriani or Eddie Van Halen, Ellis keeps it on the straight and narrow courtesy of former Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward and bassist James Ferguson. “I’m still in the game / No one left to blame,” he sings as the tune finds its groove instantly. He opens up nicely on the bridge, showing his chops for a good long while.

Clapton’s 24 Nights seems to be a good comparative starting point with this album as “Let Him Down Easy” has a decent fusion of blues, rock, and soul above everything else. The tender, softer arrangement to the track allows Ellis to break out throughout the tune. Thankfully, it doesn’t include a synthetic feel though the organic percussion and instrumentation gives that impression. This is mainly due to the fine work of percussionist Count M’butu who uses congas, bongos, and everything but the kitchen sink. Ellis again gives a stellar series of riffs once the verses are complete, letting him shine in a way that he can do so easily, sort of like a rabid Robert Cray or Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Speaking of Cray, Ellis gives a lovely little bit of R&B on the gorgeous “Me without You”, which has a bit of Motown and ‘60s doo-wop in it. This is a track you can sink your teeth into and know exactly where it’s heading, but still one you will never grow tired of. However, the ensuing “I’ll Get over You” reeks of bland ‘70s lounge rock, bringing to mind the Doobie Brothers or the current Michael MacDonald. The funky guitar accents stifle whatever Ellis is trying to accomplish, even despite a chorus that slowly creeps up on you.

Ellis says he’s a rock musician who just happens to play the blues. This is true on “And It Hurts”, a tune which instantly compares to if the Rolling Stones were doing an early version of “Money”. Blues and rockabilly makes this ditty swing and features some great picking by Ellis on acoustic guitar. Hayward also does his part on drums as the tune toe-tappingly rolls along. “La La Land” returns to the land of blues—a slow and groove-heavy effort that is possibly the highlight of the album this far, though “Me without You” is a close second. This is Ellis’ moment in the spotlight and he doesn’t fail, delivering a whistle-tinted bucket of blues that should placate diehard blues purists. A little dose of Sam and Dave never hurt anyone, and this is especially true on the swanky hooks of “My Love’s the Medicine”, a song the Commitments may try to cover but they would never surpass this attempt. The pedestrian “Fountain of Youth” misses the mark entirely though.

The homestretch kicks off with “Love Bomb”, a lovely instrumental that is ‘70s funk with Ellis providing a contemporary blues-rock riff à la Jeff Beck. The acoustic driven-cum-gospel boogie touch on “Her Other Man” recalls “Mother Child” from Clapton’s From the Cradle but the handclaps go hand in hand with this tune. Another song that resembles is the reworked Gallows Pole from Page & Plant’s No Quarter minus the hurdy gurdy. The harder, grittier side of Ellis comes to life during a thick and edgier slab of blues-rock during “12 Pack Poet”. And the last song is entitled, er, “The Last Song”. On the whole, if this is the hard way for Ellis, let’s hope he keeps travelling down this road.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ellistinsley-hardway/