Tinsley Ellis is a relentless road dawg. Still racking up 150 dates a year, after 40 years of touring and 18 albums in, his power hasn’t diminished. Powered by his red Freddie King ES-345 and augmented by his vintage ’59 Strat and ’73 Les Paul Deluxe, Ellis provides plenty of bite on the 11 originals that make up his latest, Ice Cream in Hell.
With harpist Chicago Bob Nelson, Ellis founded the Heartfixers in 1981, going solo in 1988. The Atlanta native quickly made a name for himself with his stinging licks influenced by the King royal family — Albert, Freddie, and B.B. — as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan’s presence is still with him. When Vaughan passed through Atlanta in the 1970s, he played Ellis’ Strat onstage through his Super Reverb amp. “I still to this day play that same guitar, that same amp, and I never change the settings after he sat in,” Ellis says.
But Ellis is nobody’s clone. He may drape a cloak over his shoulders to honor his influences, but he adds his own flourishes to the tributes to make the songs his own. Ellis follows no set pattern — anything is fair game. The title cut recalls the style of Robert Cray’s mid-’80s hits like “Smokin’ Gun.” Ellis’ vocal on “Everything and Everyone” sounds like Mose Allison fronting Santana, Ellis’ guitar weeping, suffering from a snaky psychedelic fever dream.
“Foolin’ Yourself” is a bar-band rocker that could have come straight out of one of Delbert McClinton’s rockin’ road dawg sets, certified and augmented by McClinton keyboard stalwart Kevin McKendree, who also produced, as Ellis lays down some stinging, frosty Albert Collins licks over the top.
“Sit Tight Mama” feels like you’re sitting across from Hound Dog Taylor at his kitchen table teetering on three legs cause Hound Dawg sawed one of the legs off for a slide, listening to him play rattly, raucous slide. Ellis smokes it, Hound Dawggin’ it so hard you’d swear Taylor was looking over his shoulder grinning ghostly approval.
It’s always a great pleasure to come back to Ellis time after time and find his power and glory intact, swapping out material but never compromising on quality. Well done once again.