Alligator Records [Release date 12.01.18]
Tinsley Ellis has long been a dependable roadhouse rocke who is equally happy tearing things up as he is searching for an emotive connection. Following in the slipstream of his last CD the soulful ‘Red Clay Soul’ – ‘Winning Hand’ is a return to his early career bluster on a guitar driven album.
But while the emphasis is on a wide array of tones and contrasting solos – his song titles helpfully tell us what guitars were used on which track – ‘Winning Hand’ celebrates the primacy of his songs.
There’s never a note wasted on 9 originals and one cover, (Leon Russell’s ‘Dixie Lullaby’), which showcase his ability to get inside a song and then invite the listener into a melange of melodies, tones, expressive vocals and subtle dynamics.
Ellis’s world weary vocal style leaves us in no doubt as to the emotional charge of his material.
‘Winning Hand’ is also a milestone album. It’s dedicated to his late dad and it also marks the 30th anniversary of his on-off relationship with Alligator records. It’s also an album he probably couldn’t have made all those years ago, as his touch, tone and lyrical wistfulness is that of a mature blues player who has the ability to dig deep for real intensity and emotional honesty.
The fact that he effortlessly does so, goes a long way to explaining his career durability.
His incendiary wah-wah playing cuts a swathe through the opening deep funky groove of ‘Sound Of A Broken Man’. Only the fact that he fails to extend the intensity to a climactic finish robs the album of a career highlight.
He prefers to explore a groove, make a statement with a solo and then get out.
His different guitar tones evoke the different emotions of each track. He employs a taut edgy tone on ‘Kiss The World’, but counter-weights it with double tracked vocals to achieve a contrasting fatter sound.
There’s similar contrast on the celebratory ‘Nothing But Fine’, as slips into a sharp toned solo over a muscular drum pattern to great effect.
‘Gamblin’ Man’ is a drifting blues with keyboard accompaniment from producer Kevin McKendree. It showcases Ellis’s judicious use of sustain and vibrato, while the laid back groove of ‘Don’t Turn Off The Light’ features an aching Peter Green style solo over nuanced synths, as he frames his limited vocals within an arrangement to emphasize lyrical meaning.
‘I Got Mine’ shifts from a BB King intro to Robert Cray style groove and ‘Autumn Run’ is an outstanding funky keyboard driven groove with gently expressive vocals. He lets his intricate solo gently drift on a wonderful exercise in space, time and meaningful notes.
You can feel the pull of the sequencing as it draw us into the subsequent rocker ‘Satisfied’.
He saves his best for last on the Robin Trower influenced ‘Saving Grace’. The head-on meeting of an enveloping tone with a vulnerable emotive narrative could only be Tinsley Ellis.
‘Winning Hand’ is an understated, but compelling blues album that invites the listener to dig deep to enjoy its riches. There’s plenty to savour, from the heartfelt songs to the sultry string bends, the aching tone, the occasional dirt sounding wah-wah and Ellis’s subtle phrasing.
Tinsley Ellis is sometimes cast in the role as the torchbearer for old school blues players, but ‘Winning Hand’ is a mature slice of contemporary blues at its finest and you should seek it out. ****
Review Pete Feenstra
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