Tinsley Ellis – Devil May Care
Alligator Records ALCD 5008
10 songs – 49 minutes
Blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis is one of the hardest working road dogs in music, and the coronavirus epidemic hit him especially hard. He had just begun touring to promote his latest album, Ice Cream in Hell, in January 2020 when the world ground to a halt, but he also found himself shuttered from the world at home for the first time in 40 years.
Instead of bemoaning that reality and feeling sorry for himself, though, Tinsley put himself to work, revisiting guitars and amps he hadn’t touched in decades and establishing a writing routine that produced a whopping 200 songs in the next year. He kept fans engaged by posting some of the material online, but they have even more reason to Blues rejoice because this beefy blend of blues, Southern rock and more is the result.
Like all of the albums Ellis has released since joining the Alligator fold with Georgia Blue in 1988, the ten tracks on this one show he’s at the top of his game, delivering emotion-charged, true-to-life stories laced with fretwork that drives home their message in a style that stands out through precision, tone and feel rather than pyrotechnics.
Tinley recorded and produced this in partnership with keyboard player Kevin McKendree at his studio, The Rock House, in Franklin, Tenn. They’re joined by bassist Steve Mackey and drummer Lynn Williams on rhythm and joined by Jim Hoke and Andrew Carney, who sit in on sax and trumpet for three cuts.
A funky, extended slide-guitar run kicks off the six-minute opener, “One More Reason,” before it settles into a medium-paced shuffle and Ellis launches into an extended apology to a lady after she’s told him goodbye. It’s an act, his says, that gives him a final excuse to cry as he notes: “The monkey was off my back now, but the circus was still in town!”
The message continues in “Right Down the Drain,” a driving rocker in which Tinsley continues to regret losing everything he valued, but admits that he’s all to blame because of outside women and cocaine. His tears are expressed in every note of the mid-tune solo. The mood brightens instantly, however, from the first notes of “Just Like Rain,” a sweet Southern rocker that recounts a Sunday morning when the singer and his lady cross paths and he finally finds the opportunity to make amends.
The action heats up again for the title track, “Beat the Devil,” which opens with a brief, but searing guitar run and settles into a steady shuffle and Ellis delivers a little allegorical philosophy: that trying to compete for more in life is a no-win situation because it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose because the outcome is always the same.
“Don’t Bury Our Love,” which follows, is one of the choicest cuts in the set, an unhurried, stop-time ballad that describes the heartache of realizing that the former joy of a relationship is at an end. You feel the pain in every note of Tinsley’s guitar. Fortunately, the rocker “Juju” celebrates the magic spells cast by another lady and brings the suffering to an end.
“Step Up” opens quietly before erupting into another pleasant rocker. It revisits the theme of “Beat the Devil” as it urges listeners to stride on higher ground before the emotion-packed “One Last Ride” finds Ellis finally willing to come to terms with heartaches experienced yesterday. Two more tunes – the hard-rocking “28 Days” and “Slow Train to Hell” – use differing allusions, one upbeat and the other not, to describe separations in relationships that feel like they’ll never come to an end.
As this review was being written, Tinsley Ellis was a 2021 Blues Music Award nominee for both blues-rock album and artist of the year for Ice Cream in Hell – and you can bet your bottom dollar that he’ll be in strong consideration next year for Devil May Care, too. Like Tinsley himself, it’s a treasure!