Tinsley Ellis’s new disc features Chuck Leavell and 14-year-old Derek Trucks



By Steve Newton

Tinsley Ellis really gets around. According to the Atlanta bluesman’s Alligator Records bio, he plays upward of 250 nights a year—and that ain’t no house gig, either. When I reached the seasoned road warrior by phone last week, he was at a place called the Crow’s Nest in Regina, between gigs the previous night in North Dakota and the next night in Edmonton. Naturally, I wondered about the wear and tear such a schedule inflicts.

“This year the travelling is a little slower ’cause we made the album,” he confesses, referring to his new Storm Warning release, “but right now we are really burnin’ it up, 500 miles every day.”

Ellis brings his thoroughly road tested brand of southern-flavoured blues-rock to the Town Pump on Thursday (October 6), with a show that’ll feature two 75-minute sets and no opening act. Ellis has a lot of material to cull lengthy set lists from, what with four solo releases and four recordings with Atlanta’s top-drawing blues band, the Heartfixers, to his credit. His latest disc—which he calls “a harder, live, guitar rave-up album”—includes two slide-guitar performances by 14-year-old Derek Trucks, nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks.

“He’s from Jacksonville, Florida,” says Ellis, “which is a big guitar city down south, so he’s been around the music for years. His dad was a fan and brought him out to hear us, but the first few times there, he was just a little boy. He wanted to play, and we just said, ‘Well, no.’ Then we heard him play one time, and ever since then he’s been sittin’ in.”

Storm Warning also includes five tracks featuring keyboardist Chuck Leavell, the same guy the Allman Brothers hired after Duane Allman’s death to play those great piano solos on tunes like “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica”. With names like Leavell and Trucks in the credits, there’s a certain Allman Brothers ambience surrounding Storm Warning, but the music’s southern-rock feel has more to do with the fact that Ellis grew up in southern Florida before moving back to his Atlanta birthplace in ’75.

“I don’t want to be like a clone act or anything,” he says of the Allman bond, “but that’s just the music of where I’m from.”

Although Ellis’s early years saw him modelling his style after blues heroes such as Freddie King, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam, he’s far from being a clone of anyone; one listen to Storm Warning confirms that he’s a player with a brashly personal style—even when covering tunes by the likes of King, Jimmy Reed, and Junior Wells. The disc was produced by Eddie Offord, whose name rings a bell because it graced the Yessongs double album I had folded out on my dresser during high school.

“He even goes back farther than that,” explains Ellis. “We really lucked out, because he’s in such big demand. He’s the one that got us to set up with all the amps in one room, and that forced us to play well, because if one person made a mistake, we’d have to do the whole thing over again.”

When asked what CDs he’s been listening to in his spare time, Ellis mentions Luther Allison’s Soul Fixin’ Man and gives a particular nod to Otis Rush’s Ain’t Enough Comin’ In, “the best blues CD made so far this year”. And when he’s onstage, the song he most wants to play is Junior Wells’s “Early in the Morning”, a tune that almost didn’t make it onto Storm Warning.

“It was the end of the session, and we had pretty much shut down, and I said, ‘I’ve got one more song.’ They said, ‘Oh no, we’ve got enough,’ and I said, ‘No, please, let’s do one more.’ So we turned the lights down low and we had a smoke and then we just knocked it out, and I knew it was gonna be great. It’s the centrepiece of our show.”

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