Tinsley Ellis’ “Devil May Care” Release Party at Caffe Lena, February 19th
There are winners and losers in a pandemic that knows no soul. And the winners are the ones whose mantra is stronger than an enemy that would push them down. Tinsley Ellis is one of those winners.
“Yeah, we’re doing well,” says Tinsley. “It’s been a rough couple of years, especially the last one.”
In the middle of the pandemic, a housebound Tinsley’s son Trey passed away.
“Making this album was somewhat of a salvation. We’ve canceled the same tour three times now. Apparently, rescheduling doesn’t seem to work. So now we’re just going to go out and do one. I think we’re just going to have to find a better way to deal with this. Life needs to continue because they say there’s a microchip in the vaccine. But at this point, I’d be willing to put a laptop up my ass for the return of life. I don’t care about the microchip.”
Tinsley is a road warrior of such tenacity that Alligator Records signed him three times in 30 years even though Tinsley himself is not sure his music fits into their wheelhouse. “I was somewhat of an anomaly,” he says, “especially when compared to the colorful lives that were lived by the first of the acts, Hound Dog Taylor. He shot his guitar player. I have not shot any of my musicians. I’m sure they have wanted to shoot me, but I have not shot any of them.”
The last time Tinsley was in our area was in November 2019. Little did we all know what was ahead. “We had the new album out, and all the dates in northern California went down so fast we had to come home. Basically, the whole circuit was crumbling. That was March of 2020 and nada – nothing since then. Not one concert. We kept rescheduling the concerts and it kept falling through.”
Rolling Stone has said of Tinsley that he plays “feral blues guitar…non-stop gigging has sharpened his six-string to a razor’s edge…his eloquence dazzles…he achieves pyrotechnics that rival early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.”
Tinsley proves them right once again on his 20th album, Devil May Care. The album was produced by his friend and co-producer, keyboard master Kevin McKendree and recorded in Franklin, Tennessee’s Rock House recording studio.
If you’re his fan, you’re going to love it. He sings on “Step Up,” “They told me this morning things could change. That we can walk together out of the rain.” That’s kind of where we all are right now, and Devil May Care is as comfortable as the first album you bought as a teenager. For Tinsley, that album was Mike Bloomfield Al Kooper Super Session. The year was 1971. Tinsley was 14.
Tinsley looks at himself with stark reality. “Pop culture is driven by two things, youth and image. That means that people like me don’t have youth and image on our side. We’re plain. Our music may be youthful, but if you can get to the upper-middle and still be youthful, and still be there doing it, it really does something. In order to poke through to the mainstream, you’re really going to have to have some wild getup to wear on stage or something and be young. That helps. I kinda feel that way, but when I stop trying to get the big deal, then I can really focus on making good music for the fans.”
Alligator CEO Bruce Iglauer has been quoted as saying, “Artists who come to labels like ours are lifers. They’re not going to score a big hit and swim around in pools of dollars like Uncle Scrooge. They know they’re going to be doing it for the rest of their lives.”
I asked Tinsley if there was methadone for his addiction to touring during the pandemic. “Uh, songwriting. Maybe this Devil May Care album is very much a salvation. One of my big worries. I didn’t want to lose my chops, so I designated every morning from 7 to 8 until noon as time for songwriting.
“That’s when my brain works best, and I went downstairs and moved my studio from being an actual studio in my basement and used those times to write songs and came up with a lot of them. I would send those songs up to Bruce at Alligator. I posted them every week on Facebook, my Wednesday tapes. I got a lot of feedback, not only from Alligator but from fans, and that became the album.”
He whittled 200 songs down to 10. One of them that didn’t make the cut was called “I Tested Negative for Sympathy for You.”
I see Tinsley as a friend. I can’t be objective about him. I love him as a person.
“Don’t think of me as a person,” he deadpans. “Think of me as a deity.”
Tinsley Ellis’ Devil May Care album release party is Saturday night, February 19th at Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St. In Saratoga. 518-583-0022