Posted: January 2, 2014
The name of his former band, the Heartfixers, hints as to what makes Tinsley Ellis a legend among his second generation postwar fellow blues artists. The passionate singer, consummate songwriter and hellfire guitarist delves deeper into the affairs of the heart through the “hard blues,” in John Lee Hooker’s memorable term. Having long ago absorbed the influences of B.B. and Freddie King, as well as British blues guitarists, Ellis commands a signature style of scalding, explosive power as heard to stunning effect on Midnight Blue… his bluesiest album in decades.
Ten emotionally searing originals from Ellis with Kevin McKendree (keyboards), Lynn Williams (drums) and Ted Pecchio (bass) offer an unforgettable late night journey out of the heart of darkness. The acoustic intro of “If the River Keeps Rising” leaps dramatically to grinding electric guitar and menacing slide, Ellis groaning a metaphoric blues lament “…the banks gonna overrun, everything torn apart. You know I can’t quit you, and I can’t sandbag my heart.” A stomping Memphis blues riff drives “Mouth Turns Dry,” Ellis confessing his weakness with “Woman like that makes me thirsty, but for me to drink is to die, but I know there’s going to be trouble when my mouth turns dry…,” his aggressive guitar hammering the tough lyrics. “Surrender” glides sensually, Ellis finessing smooth R&B licks and soulful vocals extolling love with the sweet poetry of “Find yourself somebody, don’t be all alone. Arm and arm we walk along, love will carry the load” preceding the soaring lyric hook “Surrender, surrender, surrender to the love” and a yearning solo.
The exuberant second line strut of “It’s Not Funny” describes the irresistible charms of a red head with “Can’t live without, there ain’t no doubt, there ain’t no one like that gal of mine. Flirtatious love, bodacious cause ain’t no girl that’s half as fine” countered by “It’s not funny, girl I want you to know that it’s not funny” and quicksilver slide that would make the late Lowell George envious. The Ray Charles-type ballad “See No Harm” features Ellis claiming no remorse for loving another man’s woman, his ardor inflamed by insistent guitar licks preceding his defiant “…I see no harm in lovin’ you.” The barroom din of “The Only Thing” boogies with urgent lust, Ellis repeating “Love was nothing but rough, too much was never enough till I had you day and night. You’re the onliest thing that can keep me satisfied” and a sly reference to his earlier song with “I’m the highwayman, still the prowlin’ wolf, no lie…” The lilting R&B of “Peace and Love” warns “With all this hate, everybody’s gotten so cold... Peace and love were no big deal till I couldn’t find none” as Ellis rocks his retro wah pedal and spins hopeful, lyrical solos.
The ominous beginning of “Harder to Find” precedes a soundtrack for the broken hearted with “Somethin’s going on between us, somethin’ on your mind. Feel like I’m ‘bout to be left behind. Let me in on your secret ‘bout what happened to your smile. I know good things come to an end after a while” and the anthemic chorus of “Luck keeps getting’ harder to find, when we need love,” his soaring guitar riffs and repeating, mantra-like coda pointing to the light at the end of the tunnel. Over the clanging vamp of “That’s My Story” Ellis sings of irreconcilable differences through “…We’re turnin’ up the heat, for heaven’s sakes. Life with you is hairier than ‘Planet of the Apes’” before his culpable “That’s my story, I’m stickin’ you with it” followed by slashing guitar. Exposing the pain of romantic loss, Ellis holds nothing back in the aching slow minor blues closer “Kiss of Death.” With his bittersweet guitar shedding figurative tears, he admits “If I can’t have you baby, I might as well drink gasoline”…Take my hand, lead me from this pain and misery, I know you won’t have me, lovin’ you’s the kiss of death for me.”
The ultimate artistic goal where technique and craft meld into unbound emotional expression is the blues land where the musical magic of Tinsley Ellis resides. Allow yourself to fall under his spell on Midnight Blue and enjoy a lasting, transformative experience moving body and soul.