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Feverish blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis pictures a mellow horizon

Tinsley Ellis

A “Winning Hand” is guaranteed for music lovers when they see four of a kind at MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa at Lake Tahoe on Dec. 22 with Tinsley Ellis, above, Tommy Castro, Curtis Salgado and Eden Brent.

Tinsley Ellis’ busiest year of touring in more than a decade almost didn’t include one of his most cherished places. Almost.

The prolific recording artist from Atlanta will be at Lake Tahoe on Saturday, Dec. 22, in the MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa for the “Mont-Blues Ball, Part 2.” Tommy Castro, Curtis Salgado and Eden Brent also will perform.

Ellis toured 13 weeks after releasing his 19th album, “Winning Hand.” He later hit the road with Castro, who is from the Bay Area, on what was called the T ‘N’ T Tour, which of course was a blast. He’ll be back on the West Coast for a final 2018 run with shows in Tahoe, Berkeley and Las Vegas.

“Tahoe is a very special place for me,” Ellis said. “When people ask me, I always say that’s the most beautiful place in America.”

Ellis, 61, and Castro, 63, come from the different sides of the country and made for an explosive touring combination.

“It blended well,” Ellis said. “We’re the same age. I grew up listening to the Bay Area bands, obviously the Grateful Dead and Tower of Power, and he was listening to the Georgia bands, the Allman Brothers and Wet Willie, and lo and behold, those are some of the songs we jammed on. We did different ones every night. We have 10-12 songs of him sitting in with my band and me sitting in with his.

“Tommy’s style is very similar to mine. We don’t go out there and Hendrix out or try to play a bunch of scales. We play from the heart.”

Ellis is the original Heartfixer. A Florida native, Ellis started the band the Heartfixers after attending Emory University in Atlanta, the city where he made his permanent home. He signed with Alligator Records in 1988 and consistently has put out blues-rock records with an Eric Clapton/Cream-influenced wah-wah guitar sound. He was the first to record Derek Trucks and he wrote Jonny Lang’s first big hit song, “A Quitter Never Wins.”

In 2013, he started his own label, Heartfixer Music, and released four albums that contrasted in style from previous works – two being soulful R&B singer-songwriter records and one entirely instrumental. He is back on Alligator with the album “Winning Hand,” which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues Album Charts.

In recent years, Ellis has performed at the Crystal Bay Casino and Squaw Valley’s Bluesdays. The Dec. 22 show will  be only his second on the south side of Lake Tahoe.

Ellis touched upon a variety of subjects during a recent interview with Tahoe Onstage.

What it takes to keep an album in the charts

“We did a three-month tour — 13 weeks — and ‘Winning Hand’ was on the Billboard blues chart for 13 weeks. On the 14th week, it fell off the charts, so wouldn’t it be nice to stay on the road the whole time? But one wants to have a life and you do run out of places to play. Later, when Tommy and I started the tour, our albums both reached the charts again and they were both almost a year old, so that tells you something right there.”

Sitting in with Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes on Allman Brothers’ final show

“It was a three-hour set and they were great. There was no kicking a dead horse about it. They ended on a high note. … Much like Ray Charles or Willie Nelson, the Allman Brothers are in a very small club where they are a genre all to themselves. And that is the goal. Delbert McClinton is a genre all to himself. He’s loved by country fans, blues fans and classic rock fans. For most of us, it takes a lifetime to get to the point to get to have a genre all to yourself.”

Taboo subjects

“What blues is to some people wouldn’t be blues to somebody else. When anybody asks me what I play, I just say blues-rock and that just ends the whole controversy. … Every once in a while people will fuss about it online and I won’t jump into that or politics because there is just no winning. But I read the fusses and let them fuss on. They used to have what they called the rules of the bar. The rules of the bar were no discussing politics or religion. And to the rules of the bar I would add who’s blues and who isn’t blues.”

Encountering Bill Dahl, a music critic who has panned Ellis’ work

“I ran into him at a blues show in Chicago, and it’s no use being unfriendly to the guy, although he really blasted me several times. So I thanked him for teaching me the meaning of the word ersatz. He wrote, ‘On such and such a song, Ellis, crooning like an ersatz Conway Twitty, …’ So I looked up the word and it means a substitute of inferior quality. I thanked him for teaching me that word. He said, ‘Yeah, isn’t that a great word!’”

The newly released book, “Bitten by the Blues, The Alligator Records Story,” written by label founder Bruce Iglauer and Patrick A. Roberts

“I read it in almost one sitting. It’s an amazing story. I think it’s one of the best books about blues or roots music or music in one of the most favorable artistic eras. That’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. … Bruce has had the same staff — some of them were there when I got there in 1988. His staff has lasted three times longer than the Beatles lasted. The Beatles, they were doing pretty good.”

The process of making record

“I make the album with me playing every instrument, mix it all and take it to Nashville (to meet with producer Kevin McKendree and crew) then make it again with them. Every once in a while one of my instruments will make the cut. I am best at bass, but worst on piano and drums. I have a great time doing demos and, actually, the songwriting is my favorite part of the whole process because nobody else has heard it. Nobody’s picking it apart. And I am falling in love with these songs. I have 25 or 30 original songs ready for the next one.”

A revelation that might surprise people

“There’s a James Taylor in me that’s dying to get out. That’s the kind of thing to do that works better when you are already famous. But frankly, what doesn’t work better when you are already famous? If Eric Clapton had put out “Unplugged” before he’d already sold millions and millions of albums, it wouldn’t have been as noticed. Hopefully, I’ll be famous enough one day to be mellow.”

— Tim Parsons

  • Mont-Blues Ball, Part 2
    Tinsley Ellis, Tommy Castro, Curtis Salgado, Eden Brent
    When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22
    Where: MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa
    Tickets: $25

Related stories:
— Book review: “Bitten by the Blues, The Alligator Records Story”
— Show advance: Tinsley Ellis, Tommy Castro, Curtis Salgado, Eden Brent play MontBleu
— Concert review: Elvin Bishop, Marcia Ball, Roy Rogers light up Mont-Blues Ball, Part 1

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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