As the coronavirus spread, store supplies were stripped clean, schools closed, the stock market crashed and a bandleader onstage in midtown Reno declared, “This is the last concert on Earth.”
Atlanta blues-rocker Tinsley “The Highwayman” Ellis had to cancel his “best national tour,” playing one final show on Sunday at The Saint. By Monday, arenas, clubs and bars were closed.
“We decided to make Reno the final show and there was a real desperation in the air last night,” Ellis said. “At several points during the show I referred to it as the last concert on Earth. People were really whooping it up and dancing. And now the long drive home.”
Ellis, 62, is known as The Highwayman for his willingness to drive great distances to play music for people. He spoke Monday to Tahoe Onstage just after passing the Utah state line. Like musicians everywhere, he will be without work for the time being. Although he’s just released his 18th album, “Ice Cream in Hell,” Ellis plans to write and record more songs when he gets home.
“This was probably the best national tour I’ve done,” he said. “There was lots of press and radio and the album’s been on the Top 10 on Billboard’s Blues Chart, which is based on sales, ever since it came out. Now it’s going to come to a screeching halt, along with everyone else’s albums.
“I was one of the last people to call their tour off. First Allman-Betts called theirs off, then Coco Montoya called his off and Walter Trout called his off. I was one of the last ones to do it. They pretty much took me kicking and screaming.
“We tried to salvage it, but it was like a dam breaking and there were more holes in the dam that I could put my fingers in. It’s a real helpless feeling, and it went down very quickly, all on Friday. Everybody thought it was the best thing to do and, in retrospect, I can see that it was.”
The tour’s penultimate show was Saturday in Paradise, California, a town that was destroyed by fire in 2018. He shared the stage with fellow Alligator Records artist Tommy Castro. The Rotary Club put on the show as a benefit for the fire’s victims.
“Everybody was dancing as if it was going to be their last chance for a while,” Ellis said.
Then the Sierra Nevada’s largest snowstorm of the winter hit. With Highway 80 closed, Ellis and his bandmates — bassist Trey Duke and drummer Erik “Jazzy Skins” Kaszynski — decided to take a rural, mountainous route, Highway 70, to get to Reno. They had no chains for their van, no reception for their cell phones. It took five hours to travel 156 miles through white-out conditions. Ellis told his passengers that he would not stop for fear of getting stuck.
“Our eyes were bugging out of our heads,” he said.
“I can see how that could be a really beautiful drive but the danger involved masked the beauty,” he said. “We could barely see the tire tracks. I had white knuckles on the steering wheel. Everything was pretty much terrifying. For somebody who grew up in Georgia, I had never seen anything like that.
“There was snowblindness, then the sun tried to come out. Putting on sunglass in a snowstorm is a strange thing. But we made it. It was really the scariest drive I’ve ever had.“
Weather and fear of coronavirus kept some people for attending the Reno show, which fell short of a sellout.
David Rocco, who took photos, said, “The mood was good. Everyone was on their feet. They were real happy Tinsley Ellis was here and doing the show.”
Reno resident Pam Farmer agreed.
“I am glad I was there for the last concert on Earth,” she said. “I am keeping my fingers crossed for a new Earth and more great music like last night.”
As he approached Salt Lake City on Monday afternoon under much calmer driving conditions, Ellis was disappointed but optimistic. The canceled shows in the Northwest, Midwest and Northeast will be rescheduled for later this year, he said.
“Things will get started again and we’ll come back with a vengeance,” he said. “Music’s always the first thing to go away in bad times, but it’s the first thing to come back. We’re going to make it back to Georgia in two days. We’ll go 18 hours, get some sleep, then go another 18 hours. You know why? I’m The Highwayman.”