Here’s the deal: Tinsley Ellis is all in.
On his new album, “Winning Hand,” he sings about “driving on the highway, taking my sweet time.” But that will hardly be the case this winter when Ellis hits the road on his most ambitious domestic tour in 20 years, celebrating a return to his blues-rock sound on his comeback with Alligator Records. The album debuted at on top of Billboard’s Blues Albums Chart on Jan. 27.
Often dubbed “The Highwayman” for his anthemic song and live record (and his alacrity to make it to shows no matter the distance), Ellis will be en route to a town near you, seeking a full house.
Ellis, drummer Erik “Jazzy Skins” Kaszynski and new touring bassist Kevan McCann — three-of-a-kind hardy souls – are slated to play 61 shows, starting with the hometown “Winning Hand” release performance in Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse. The trio will hit some frigid towns, including Minneapolis, Fargo, Park City and Denver. They will go 1,200 miles from a show in Bakersfield to one in Vancouver, B.C. They play a show in Boise, Idaho, followed by one the next night in Sacramento, crossing the infamous and eminently dicey Donner Pass near Lake Tahoe.
“It’s a crapshoot,” Ellis told Tahoe Onstage.
It wasn’t a perfect storm that reunited Ellis, 60, with the record label, rather it was a superb album. Ellis’ distinguishable and varied guitar tones and solid songs resonated with Alligator Records President and Founder Bruce Iglauer.
A prolific songwriter with a creative wanderlust, Ellis left Alligator after releasing the 2009 album “Speak No Evil.” He started his own label, Heartfixer, named for one of his early bands, and vowed to make five records in as many years. (The new album will be released Jan 12, less than two weeks off the five-year mark.)
Ellis explored different musical areas, including an all-instrumental record, “Get It!” and a singer-songwriter album, “Red Clay Soul.” He also started a band, Blues is Dead, which featured blues songs by the Grateful Dead and other San Francisco psychedelia bands.
Although Ellis was away from Alligator, he continued to seek Iglauer’s advice, and Alligator took care of the mail-distribution for Heartfixer. The album that would be named “Winning Hand” features Ellis’ traditional blues-rock style.
“The idea was to return to the sound that I had during my heyday with Alligator and, then lo and behold, they noticed,” Ellis said. “Bruce just made an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“I just wanted the album to have the best chance it could and Alligator does the best job. … I don’t think I would have given it to anybody else. I would rather just put it out on Heartfixer. But I know what they do and their enthusiasm level, which is so high, it was infectious. I was just sort of imagining them showing that same kind of enthusiasm to those they were pitching it to.”
If I put it out on my own label, I would have been playing the quarters slots. Now that it’s on Alligator, I’m playing the dollar slots.”
“That song kind of defines my career,” Ellis said. “I’ve taken some gambles. Some of them pay off, some of them don’t pay off. And on this one, the payoff is the album, the tour and re-signing to Alligator. I think I’m the only artist that’s ever been signed to Alligator three different times.
“If I put it out on my own label, I would have been playing the quarters slots. Now that it’s on Alligator, I’m playing the dollar slots.”
Many of the tunes had been written earlier and were intended to be on a follow-up album to “Speak No Evil.”
The first song that has received radio play, “Kiss This World Goodbye,” includes Ellis on three different guitars.
“It’s going to be very difficult to do that live, but I’ll find a way.”
The album rocks from the get-go, opening with “Sound of a Broken Man,” which features two guitars, a lot of wah-wah and a cowbell.
“When I played that for Bruce Iglauer, he said I was king of the power wah,” Ellis said. “It’s good to be the king of something.”
Ellis learned the nuance of the wah-wah pedals when he made the 1997 album, “Fire it Up,” produced by Tom Dowd, the legendary engineer and producer for Atlantic Records.
“I was playing the wah-wah pedal in an up-and-down motion rhythmically and he goes, ‘Stop doing that, it’s not a foot pump,’” Ellis recalled. “The idea is to milk the tones with it in slow, sweeping motions.”
Ellis has mastered the wah-wah and has been a bedrock of his records and concerts ever since.
After his collaboration with Dowd, Ellis partnered with Nashville producer and keyboard player Kevin McKendree on his last 10 studio albums. “Winning Hand” is his 19th.
“What Kevin does is somewhat of a lost art,” Ellis said. “You have people like Billy Preston, Chuck Leavell and Kevin — that’s a very small list. There’s a ton of guitar players but there’s not a lot of people who really know the right way to play a Hammond B3 organ.”
The song “I Got Mine” comes from a line Ellis heard from Buddy Guy.
“This young musician was asking Buddy Guy, ‘Could you do something to help me out, Buddy?’ Buddy Guy said, ‘I got mine, go out and get your own.’ That’s great career advice for somebody in music because there appears to be no shortcuts and it means more to you if you go out and get your own rather than if somebody gets it for you.”
The highlight of the album is the final song, ”Saving Grace,” a Robin Troweresque slow-burning, minor-key jam. It ends with a Les Paul guitar’s fuzzy heartbeat coming at the end of a sonic workout.
The only cover on the album is Leon Russell’s “Dixie Lullaby.”
“Leon Russell is my greatest songwriting influence and I have written so many songs in his style,” Ellis said. “He was one of those rare artists who was a genre unto himself and that’s a very small club of people. Ray Charles, he was a genre, and I think you could say, Willie Nelson, there’s a genre unto himself.
“Leon Russell produced some of Freddie King’s greatest albums. So we did ‘Dixie Lullaby’ as if Freddie King had recorded it.”
While Leon Russel is Ellis’s greatest songwriting influence, Eric Clapton is the guitar player he tried to emulate.
“Eric Clapton wants to get to know me in the worst way, which is not at all,” Ellis said. “I would love to someday meet him because no man has ever wanted to be Eric Clapton more than me, and I don’t care if you print that or not, because it’s really true. I just think he’s great.”
Ellis said he wished the guitars Clapton played on Cream’s records were listed in the liner notes. That’s what motivated him to run a photo of each of his guitars used on “Winning Hand,” in the liner notes, noting on which tracks they were played.
“There are maybe 50,000 real blues fans in American, but there are 50 million guitar fans, so the idea is that the guitar is a genre of its own.”
Some of the performances on his extended wintertime tour will include acoustic and slide guitar sets. Watching over the vintage six-strings is as much of a concern as the weather and long miles in a “standard-issued Chicago blues van.” But the Highwayman plans to keep everything under control.
“I will probably drive 98 percent of the tour,” he said, “mainly so I can control the bathroom breaks.”
– Tim Parsons
- Tinsley Ellis
Release: Jan. 12, 2018
Label: Alligator Records
Producers: Tinsley Ellis and Kevin McKendree
Standout tracks: ‘Saving Grace,’ ‘Kiss This World’
Jan. 12 – Variety Playhouse, Atlanta
Jan. 13 – Songbirds Guitar Museum, Chattanooga
Jan. 14 – Witches Winery & Brewing Co., Danville, Virginia
Jan. 16 – Capital Ale House, Richmond
Jan. 17 – Blues Alley, Washington, D.C.
Jan. 18 – Creative Alliance, Baltimore
Jan. 19 – Arden Concert Guild, Arden, Delaware
Jan. 20 – Sellersville, Theatre, Sellerville, Pennsylvania
Jan. 21 – City Winery, New York
Jan. 23 – Iron Horse, Northampton, Massachusetts
Jan. 24 – City Winery, Boston
Jan. 25 – Narrows, Center, River Fall
Jan. 26 – The Linda, Albany, New York
Jan. 27 – Moondogs, Pittsburgh
Jan. 28 – Iron Works, Buffalo
Jan. 29 – Cadillac Lounge, Toronto
Jan. 31 – S.P.A.C.E., Chicago
Feb. 1 – Callahan’s, Auburn, Michigan
Feb. 2 – Winter Blues Festival, Cincinnati
Feb. 3 – C2G Music Hall, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Feb. 7 – Blues at the Abbey, Subiaco, Arkansaw
Feb. 8 – Chrome Lounge, Omaha
Feb. 9 – Orpheum Theatre, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Feb. 10 – Winter Blues Festival, Fargo, North Dakota
Feb. 13 – Mangy Moose, Salt Lake City
Feb. 15 – Boulder Station Casino, Las Vegas
Feb. 16 – World Records, Bakersfield, California
Feb. 18 – Rio Theatre, Vancouver, B.C.
Feb. 20-21 – Jazz Alley, Seattle
Feb. 22 – The Root Cellar, Prosser
Feb. 23 – Jack London Revue, Portland
Feb. 24 – Boise Blues Society, Boise, Idaho
Feb. 25 – B Street Theatre, Sacramento
Feb. 26 – Yoshi’s, Oakland
Feb. 27 – Tower Theatre, Fresno
Feb. 28 – Coach House, San Juan Capistrano
March 1 – Canyon Club, Agoura Hills
March 2 – 191 Toole, Tuscon
March 3 – Musical Instrument Museum, Pheonix
March 4 – The Cooperage, Albuquerque
March 7 – O.P. Rockwell, Park City, Utah
March 8 – The Temporary, Basalt, Colorado
March 9-10 – Grand Z Casino, Central City
March 11 – Swallow Hill, Denver
March 12 – Center for the Arts, Crested Butte
March 14 – Coda Concert House, Joplin, Missouri
March 15 – Old Rock House, St. Louis
March 16 – Redstone Room, Davenport, Iowa
March 17 – Minneapolis, Minnesota
March 18 – Lefty’s Live Music, Des Moines, Iowa
March 19 – Zoo Bar, Lincoln, Nebraska
March 22 – Woodlands Tavern, Columbus, Ohio
March 23 – Music Box Supper Club, Cleveland
March 24 – Franke Center for the Arts, Marshall, Michigan
March 25 – The Jazz Kitchen, Indianapolis
April 5 – Dose Doe, The Woodlands, Texas
April 6 – The Guitar Sanctuary, McKinney, Texas
April 7 – Antone’s, Austin