Barnstorming blues

Tinsley Ellis’ hot, showy guitar playing has earned him numerous comparisons to the likes of Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. And while the critically acclaimed musician has no quarrel with boomer-friendly power blues, he balks at being labeled a bluesman.

“It’s OK if people say my music sounds like the blues to them, but I feel precocious calling myself a bluesman,” he explains. “I’m not old enough. A bluesman should at least look like someone’s dad, if not grandfather.” (Ellis has been known to call himself “a rock ‘n’ roller who plays the blues.”)

The 40-year-old Atlantan was ritually initiated into the music business at an impressionable age. Sitting front-row at a B.B. King concert, the 14-year-old Ellis received the ultimate gift from the blues giant — a broken string off his beloved guitar, Lucille.

But for his part, Ellis harbors no particular attachment to his Gibson or his Fender Stratocaster. Asked what kind of feelings he has for the instruments that have made him a Southern legend, the musician counters, in mock defense, “Why, are you planning on stealing one?”

Well, no. And apparently, I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.

“That’s what cases and alarms and big, mean roadies are for,” he jokes. But lest he be construed as lacking in soul, it’s important to note that Ellis’ affection for the music itself is a deeply personal one.

“Those are the [guitar] brands I need to bring out the sounds I hear in my head,” he explains.

And, when bringing out those sounds, Ellis and his band — though they’ve played in every state in the country — feel most at home in the South.

“In the South, a lot of our fans will have all [five of] our CDs,” he points out, “and I try to do stuff from each of them (but we have to please ourselves first). It’s easier playing in the South than in some places, like on the West Coast, because here we’re more well-known. I like the venues where there are a couple-hundred people, as opposed to a big blues fest, where we lack the rapport we get in a [smaller club]. But every night is different. All I know is that, when we party onstage, the audience parties, too.”

In Ellis’ view, the blues has more relevance today than ever — and it’s never been more lucrative, either. “Blues is the buzzword of the ’90s,” he notes, adding, “It’s a good time to be playing.”

Still, he worries about the genre being overcommercialized. His newest CD, Fire It Up (Alligator Records, 1997), was produced by Tom Dowd (who’s worked with Eric Clapton and Aretha Franklin). Ellis is proud of both the association and the work — to the point of calling it, in a technical sense, “my best album yet”– but he admits that Fire it Up is a significant departure from previous recordings, and he seems uneasy about it.

“This is the first time we had a really big producer, and the album has more of a specific sound,” he explains. “It was more in [the producer's] hands, as opposed to earlier CDs that are more of a representation of a live show. [Dowd's version] is more a posed portrait of the music,” he observes, adding, “The stuff we’ve done live is more like the stuff that I would listen to.”

Ellis’ “stuff,” by the way, is a searing, pyrotechnic blend of six-string-guitar playing that manages to be both hard-edged and elegiac — a tour-de-force of gritty, feral blues and smooth soul, driven by a raw voice that bespeaks too many late nights.

He first picked up a guitar at age 8, has been playing professionally for 20 years, and has toured constantly for the last 10 (Ellis averages 275 days a year on the road, rivaling the legendarily frantic schedule of his idol, King). And he expresses thinly veiled contempt for bands any less immersed in the mission of delivering themselves to the masses, even taking a swipe at fellow Georgians R.E.M. for the meager number of concerts they deign to give, despite regularly disgorging new albums.

“It’s so different for me,” Ellis muses. “I live for the thrill of the live show. With a video act, as long as your hair is perfect that day and you can lip-synch, there’s your promotion. But nobody ever made it in any kind of roots music — be it blues, bluegrass, jazz, polka, whatever — without beating the bushes and barnstorming like politicians.”

Clearly, the tight bond with fans that the band’s road travails have spawned has done as much as any bigwig producer to boost record sales.

“There’s an air of desperation about a band that’s been on the road so much,” he says. “Take a band that’s done 25 shows 25 nights in a row — when they come to your town and hit the ground running, you know it.”

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