LIVE: Tinsley Ellis @ Caffe Lena, 02/19/2022

In the middle of the set, a sociology professor from a prestigious local college leaned back in her seat, cocked her head around, and in her best longshoreman’s voice told someone talking behind her to please be quiet. 

Tinsley Ellis was not playing a bar with five TVs all tuned to the NFL. This was Caffe Lena, THE listening club that still displays a photo of Bob Dylan sitting at a table with Lena Spencer prior to his signing with Columbia as she “auditioned” him to play her coffeehouse circa 1960. 

Captured from Tinsley Ellis’s performance on

Tinsley was playing a 1932 National Steel Guitar still so shiny new looking that it gleamed in the stage lights. This was a CD release party for his new Alligator release Devil May Care, a title Tinsley borrowed from a song sung by Elvis in Viva Las Vegas.  But Tinsley was parenthetically wearing his dress blues, playing to an audience far more sophisticated than some of the stops on this tour, his first in two years. 

While Devil May Care contains 10 originals pared down from 200 Tinsley wrote during his pandemic sequester, he is all about “playing to his receiver” as we used to say in advertising. After his sumptuously long set, he and I recalled his being on my WXLE Backstage Pass show in 1992 and running out to his renta-truck to hear “The Ax Is Gonna Fall” from Trouble Time, his third Alligator LP.  He wanted to hear how it sounded on the truck radio. At Lena’s, he stepped back from the microphone to hear how he sounded to the room.  

He respects his fans and plays to each and every audience as unique and important to his career. He introduced “Shadow of Doubt” from his first CD Moment of Truth as having “sold well under a million copies.”  In a pre-concert interview, he said, “When I stop trying to get the big deal, then I can really focus on making good music for the fans.” 

Tinsley’s bread and butter are blues-rock originals that he plays using every inch of the fretboard on three different electric guitars, a Gibson, a Fender, and what looked to me like a knockoff of a Lonnie Mack Flying V. He shows incredible dexterity in this realm on originals from his long career including “One Less Reason,” “Beat The Devil,” “A Quitter Never Wins,” “Way Too Long,” “Gonna Cut You Loose,” 28 Days without You,” “A Message to My Baby” and “Slow Train to Hell.” 

Captured from Tinsley Ellis’s performance on

But he showed a maturity at Caffe Lena that positions him in legacy territory with his Freddie King cover “Double-Eyed Wammy” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster.” He told us that Bob Margolin, Muddy Waters’ lead guitarist, taught him how to play “Can’t Be Satisfied” correctly, and the standout display of his incredible prowess was on “It Hurts Me Too,” a blues standard best known by Eric Clapton’s cover but a song whose heritage goes back to Tampa Red and later, Jr. Wells. 

Tinsley told us that as a teenager he was so intimidated by Howlin’ Wolf’s larger-than-life countenance that he was afraid to approach him. Now he honors the legacies’ memories with covers that support his own much-lauded additions to the genre.  

Editors Note: Click here for a video of the performance compliments of

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