In the big book of blues-rock guitarists, fretburner Tinsley Ellis should be included on the same page as Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Although the talented guitarist and soulful singer hasn't achieved the same level of fame or notoriety as his better-known peers, for better than two decades Ellis has thrilled audiences worldwide with his fiery guitarplay and R&B influenced songwriting. Ellis averages around 150 live performances a year, and has the chops to hold his own on stage with folks like Buddy Guy, Son Seals, and Albert Collins, among others.
The key to Ellis's longevity in a business with little reward and a high drop-out rate has been his consistency...whether witnessing the guitarist's electric live performances or hearing one of his dozen albums, you always know that you're going to hear some death-defying fretwork and hard-charging blues with a Southern rock tinge. Speak No Evil, Ellis's eleventh studio album (he also has two live discs to his credit) is certainly no exception. The guitarist's follow-up to his 2007 album Moment of Truth, Speak No Evil is a solid collection of songs that masterfully weld traditional electric blues with hard rock and classic soul in the creation of a sound that is comfortably familiar but entirely unique to Tinsley Ellis.
Tinsley Ellis's Speak No Evil
Despite his consistency, Ellis is not beyond adding a few new colors to his musical palette, as he does with Speak No Evil. Sure, the album-opening "Sunlight Of Love" cranks the amps with a brilliant display of fretboard pyrotechnics, Ellis's scorching notes channeling both Jimi and Stevie Ray, the patron saints of the blues-rock church. But the title track slips into more soulful territory, showcasing a richer tone more akin to Clapton's jazziest efforts than to the raw bluesy devastation that is Ellis's trademark. A fine vocal turn and a river-deep bass line that is threaded throughout the rhythm track compliment the energetic guitarplay.
You can almost smell the cypress root emanating from "The Other Side," which ventures dangerously into swamp-blues territory with hypnotic riffing, murky rhythms, and Ellis's clever fretboard-mangling. While his vocals take on an ethereal quality, his blistering solos are rays of sunlight piercing the veil of darkness that inhabits the song's soundtrack. Ellis's lyrical wordplay ain't half bad, either, the song's bleak mojo some sort of death fantasy or something equally disturbing, but fair game for a blues tune.
Cold Love, Hot Night
The bluesy opening licks of "Cold Love, Hot Night" intro a slow-paced, smoldering tale of love gone wrong, the song itself an amalgam of Memphis soul and Chicago blues with a wicked, Albert Collins-styled ice-cold guitar line threaded beneath the vocals. Ellis rips a page out of the Robin Trower playbook with "Amanda," the song's thick sludge of a rhythm soundtrack made all the more dense by Ellis's uber-cool "wah wah" guitar riffing, on top of which he piles shards of jagged, dull-blade lead notes that cut to the bone and push the song into strange (albeit entertaining) turf, a mutant hybrid of psychedelic rock and raw blues feeling.
"Loving For Today" returns Ellis and the band to much more traditional territory, the bluesy dirge exhibiting the passion so many nerf metal bands tried to capture in the 1980s, but lacked the understanding to capture the real deal. No such shortcoming on Ellis's part, 'cause this here is a guy that lives the blues, both awake and dreaming, and it shows with the heartachingly beautiful solo that fractures the song about halfway through. By contrast, the instrumental "Rockslide" is an energetic romp across the Southern rock horizon with twangy guitarplay that sounds like it was jammed through the razor-cut speaker of a cheap amplifier while the band shambles and rambles behind with reckless abandon. Think Lightning Hopkins meets Johnny Cash and you'd be somewhere in the same ballpark.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
The blues-rock style is lousy with Stevie Ray wannabes, young (and some old) guitarists that mistake style for experience and have little knowledge of where the music comes from. That isn't Tinsley Ellis, a top-flight six-string technician capable of coaxing sounds and emotions out of his guitar that lesser talents can't imagine, much less duplicate. Speak No Evil is a fine example of Ellis's work, a showcase for his considerable instrumental and songwriting skills, and a heck of a fun album. Ellis never fumbles, and he doesn't so much as wink at passing musical trends...he just consistently delivers entertaining, exhilarating blues-rock music for we folks that like our guitars played loud and our music full of soul. (Alligator Records, released October 6, 2009)