Tinsley Ellis: Live! Highwayman

Jason MacNeil

The blues recorded is only one-upped by the blues live. And the blues live is only one-upped by a few blues guitarists out there. Tinsley Ellis is one of 'em.

Tinsley Ellis

Live! Highwayman

Label: Alligator
US Release Date: 2005-06-07
UK Release Date: 2005-06-13
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While he might not be in the realm of legends like the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clapton, or B.B. King, Tinsley Ellis knows the blues and knows how to communicate those blues through his guitar. Last year's album The Hard Way made several people sit down and take notice of this performer, rather underrated outside of blues circles. This live album recorded at Chord On Blues bar, which says it's 12 tracks but is really 11, takes you down a road that is nearly 80 minutes long, mixing the best of the old time blues with a certain Austin style of blues that is quite apparent on the slow-moving opener "To the Devil for a Dime". Ellis would perfectly complement a rowdier, edgier Robert Cray on this tune as he sings about working for 29 years. The solos are stellar and extremely crisp, but not quite as long as one would hope. But again, it's early on folks. And the crowd at the venue is on side with him from the very beginning.

A faster, punchy blues riff comes on during the title track, which resembles the perfect mix of the late Vaughan's pizzazz with the slightly slower, swinging vibe that B.B. King has cashed in on so many times. It's pure Austin blues thanks to Ellis's supporting cast in drummer Jeff Burch, keyboardist Todd Hamric, and the Evil One on bass. They jam the song out somewhat, but it's still pretty tight even after five minutes. A very good performance to be sure! However, like most blues musicians worth their salt, they can carry a song from the first note to the last, and Ellis does this on the slow and tender "A Quitter Never Wins", showing his pipes to be a great extension of his soulful guitar licks. Here he buries himself into the guitar solo a third of the way into the song and the results are extremely pleasing, Ellis meticulous but still able to pour himself into it. The second solo is stronger, meatier, beefier than the second, almost going into Page territory. "Thanks everybody, how you all doing tonight?" he asks after the tune.

When he's good, he's great, but a couple of songs don't quite have that quality that gets into your bloodstream immediately. A perfect example of this is the mellow, Cray-ish groove on "Real Bad Way", which doesn't get too high or too low, relying on an even keel to get its point across. And it does, but just barely, thanks to a nice Hamric solo early on. Fortunately, he returns to his strong points with the at times blistering "Hell or High Water" easing into a funky soul/blues blueprint before upping the ante. The last two minutes are a jam session, more or less, with each player bouncing ideas off the other for a great effect. This momentum is carried on during the pleasing, popping "The Next Miss Wrong", which brings to mind the Fabulous Thunderbirds in their early prime. Part rocker and part blues tune, the tune is one of the highlights of the album's first side.

The second half of the album includes three tracks that are quite long and showcase Ellis's bucketful of talent, but it is on "The Last Song" where he really lets go, showing another side that is again his voice and guitar melding for something only a handful can truly pull off so easily. The only irk about it might be that Hamric's piano tends to unfortunately compete at times with Ellis. Ellis lets loose on the conclusion with some of his most inspired work on the record. But even this ditty pales compared to the harder, rocking "Pawnbroker", which comes off as a cross between Canadian band Big Sugar and the keyboards from Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry". "Take care of my guitar and I'll be back again someday", Ellis sings on this track that is the centerpiece in a finely sculptured blues tiara. Just enjoy the ten-minute ride as Ellis exclaims "Ta dah!" at the conclusion. After another lovely, blues-saturated "The Axe", the musician ends the album with "Double Eyes Whammy", although it doesn't quite live up to "Pawnbroker". Nonetheless if you're looking for a blues fix, get this album.


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