The blues are back

By on March 4, 2015

Bluesman Tinsley Ellis to revisit area

Blues man Tinsley Ellis will perform at the Ephrata Main March 8. Tickets are still available.

Blues man Tinsley Ellis will perform at the Ephrata Main March 8. Tickets are still available.

Blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis is no stranger to Lancaster County. He plays here regularly. And no matter the weather in Ephrata on March 8, he will be happy to return when he arrives for a show at the Ephrata Main Theatre. He says this while relaxing in his home in Atlanta, fresh back from a show in Saskatchewan where the actual temperature had a high of 20 below zero.

“I’m really excited to be coming back; we have a lot of friends there,” said Ellis. “We’ve been playing that area for over 25 years now. Our annual show at the theatre is awesome; we look forward to it, because … the venue is awesome.”

Starting out as a professional in 1975, Ellis slowly and eventually became a household name to blues guitar fans. He started out by playing around Atlanta while going to school at Emory University. With a sound based in Atlanta and reminiscent of Chicago blues, Ellis drew the attention of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Derek Trucks, and Chuck Leavell, who sat in on Ellis’ albums. But, for Ellis, it all started as a boy with the inspiration of a blues legend.

While he was listening to what many people his age listened to in that era, the British Invasion &tstr; Ellis was born in 1957 &tstr; he was encouraged to check out B.B. King. He did. At a small hotel venue in Miami Beach, Ellis caught a Saturday afternoon, teenage-only show with 40 or so other fans. Coca-Cola filled the hour long set and it was one of the coolest things Ellis had ever seen. A short time later he got to see B.B. King square off against another blues legend in what he calls the best concert he has ever seen. He witnessed B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf trying to top each other on stage. He was hooked.

“I’d say it came out about a draw,” said Ellis, who had realized his calling was as a blues guitarist.

Warming up stateside (for now), Ellis is out touring in support of his 15th studio album. “Tough Love” was released Feb. 21 and has been met with much acclaim. Reviewers and music writers are calling it his best album to date. Barry Kerzner of “American Blues Scene” magazine writes the opening track, “Seven Years,” features “pointed picking, great rhythm playing, and a shimmering lead.” It is a solid blues jam. The 10-track album spans a variety of musical styles, explained Ellis.

“It’s a continuation of what I’ve done on my own Heartfixer Music label over the past three years,” he said when asked to talk about the new album. “It’s all original music along the blues/rock guitar vein. It’s hard to talk about it, being the one who made it. I’ve been so inside of it.”

tinsley_ellis_tough_love_square_largeWorking in his Atlanta studio, Ellis made demo recordings of approximately 30 songs. He whittled the list down by personally re-listening to the songs and then bouncing them off a group of friends. One of those friends, Kevin McKendree, is a well-respected, self-taught pianist who has dropped keys for the likes of the Brian Setzer Orchestra and John Oates. He is most known for appearing on the Grammy Award-winning Delbert McClinton albums “Nothing Personal” and “Cost of Living.”

“I picked the songs I liked the most,” said Ellis. “I got to the point where I could put them together in some kind of order that made sense, because stylistically, some are so different. I let the guitar playing be the common denominator.”

Once he had a group of songs he felt comfortable with, he and McKendree spent several months producing and mixing the album. Joining Ellis on “Tough Love” is McKendree on organ, piano, mellotron and tympani; drummer Lynn Williams; and Steve Mackey on bass. Linking up on the passionate, soulful, and gripping tale of the blues track titled “All In The Name Of Love” are Jim Hoke on saxophone and Steve Herrman on trumpet. The album took almost a year to compile.

“It takes a while. Back in the old days we’d just knock it out in a week or two,” said Ellis.

When Ellis isn’t playing his own music, he’s digging two young musicians. He quickly mentions 30-year old Mississippi blues guitarist Jarekus Singleton when asked what currently fills his ears. Singleton started playing at age nine in his grandfather’s church. The other artist catching Ellis’ attention is Nikki Hill, a hard rocking, harshly soulful singer backed by a three-piece, punchy blues/rock band.

“These are two bright new faces in the blues world,” he said.

As for Ellis’ not-so-old blues face, music fans can find him at the Ephrata Main Theatre on March 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $25 and are available online at ephratamain.com or at the door … if they aren’t sold out by then!

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions. 

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