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CD Review -- Tinsley Ellis

Tinsley Ellis
Speak No Evil
Alligator Records

 Tinsley Ellis CD
by Mark Baier

Over the last 25 years, few guitarists have put more miles on the Econoline than Tinsley Ellis has. With a resume that includes performances in all 50 states as well as four continents, Ellis has left countless audiences drenched in sweat from the rhythm and feral power of his music. His eighth Alligator release Speak No Evil shows Ellis at the height  of his creative potency, delivering a collection of songs that fuse equal parts Fillmore with Mississippi Delta mud. While this record clearly intends to rock, the red clay of Tinsley’s Georgia roots is never far from the surface when the volume is turned up and Ellis lets loose on the 12 tracks included on Speak No Evil.


With the crack of a snare and a yowl from a wide open “wah wah”, Speak No Evil wastes no time getting started, opening up with the rollicking “Sunlight of Love”. Its aggressive and exhilarating guitar lines serve notice that this is not just another blues record. Speak No Evil is all about loud riff heavy blues/rock. Utilizing a generous pallet of vintage guitar tones, Ellis applies it in thick liberal doses, creating a complex and textured sonic painting in the process. “Slip and Fall,” “The Other Side,”  “The Night Is Easy” and “Loving For Today” are terrific up tempo rockers with heavy riffs that come at you like sharks in a feeding frenzy. The solo breaks are always melodic yet aggressive, explosive and controlled. No notes are wasted, and none are needed, as every chord and guitar figure seem perfectly balanced to serve the song. Two standout tracks are “The Night is Easy” and “Amanda”. Both songs are immersed in big analog guitar tones and are densely packed with passionate riffs, sharp as a razor’s edge. The aural landscape is controlled and explosive; orchestral in its impact. The sonic craftsmanship evident here is very impressive. Throughout the recording, the snare of Jeff Burch and the bass of “The Evil One” erupt like perfectly placed M-80’s, laying down a tracker beam of voodoo groove to which Tinsley applies the electric sonic sauce.


There are a couple quieter turns as well. “It Takes What it Takes” floats above the beautifully conceived twin guitar lines that belies Ellis’s southern-fried roots, and “Cold Love, Hot Night” with its minor key changes and memorable chorus, would be the A- side of a hit 45 in a bygone era.


While this is clearly an appealing recording for fans of superior string stretching, the vocal ability demonstrated by Ellis is notable as well. His smoky expressive style can be delicate and rough. There is a tenderness and grit to his delivery that is easy and sure, with a control of phrasing and melody that is a treat to listen to in an era where appearances are often more important than substance.


Ultimately, the power and impact of Speak No Evil is in its ability to invoke the best of the Fillmore era without aping it. While clearly reminiscent of classic era power rock like Cream, Traffic and Hendrix, Speak No Evil stands with those seminal sounds as an equal rather than a retread. Any one of the songs on Speak No Evil could have been released in 1968, and our kids would be playing them today on Guitar Hero.  It’s weight and substance as an artistic whole speak to Ellis’s deep understanding for the same roots music that was so important to the ’60s rock pioneers who opened the doors to a world of music most Americans didn’t know existed. Night after night, Tinsley Ellis is traveling the world reminding audiences why they fell in love with the blues, one blistering rocking song at a time.



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