Marcia Ball and Tinsley Ellis to Team Up at Caffe Lena on April 2nd

At first blush putting together a blues-rocking guitarist like Tinsley Ellis with the Gulf Coast’s number one boogie-woogie keyboardist like Marcia Ball at the country’s oldest and most revered coffee house, Caffe Lena, would seem like pouring chocolate on a T-bone steak and topping it with real whipped cream and a cherry. 

“I’m doing guitar. She’s doing a piano thing,” says Tinsley. “You have a male and a female. So, it’s not just me and some other guitar shredder or something like that. There’s a lot of variety. So, I’m just a big fan of her musically and personally. She is a brilliant class act.” Both usually have a band, but they’re going solo acoustic at Caffe Lena.  

Both are class acts, and both are veteran road warriors who record for Alligator Records, a label that supports artists who tour incessantly. I interviewed Tinsley recently as he drove from Washington state back to his home in Atlanta with three stops for shows on the way in Denver, Omaha, and St. Louis. Marcia was doing 180 shows a year at the peak in 2006. Not as many now.  

“It’s routed, something to shoot for,” said Tinsley, almost as if he were apologizing for breaking up the journey from one end of America to another into three or four days. He rationalized the scattered dates as a way to avoid “just staring into the abyss for three days, you know?  

“If they could find a way to invent that thing as they have on Star Trek where one day you’re on your sofa, they beam you onto the stage, and you’re back on your sofa again. That doesn’t exist. You’ve just got to get to those places. Pretty much the one or two hours onstage is the payoff.” 

Tinsley just called Marcia out of the blue and asked her if she would tour with him. He figured it would make a good combination. “When I pair with another Alligator artist, it gives the label something to really dig in and promote. That’s what they do, and what better format for a show than a piano?”  

Tinsley’s mentor was King of the Blues B. B. King. Marcia’s is Irma Thomas, New Orleans’ queen of the blues. “My aunt played music sometimes in cocktail lounges and places like that – not seriously professional, but she was a wonderful piano player,” explains Marcia. “My grandmother had played piano growing up in Louisiana. The legend is that she played for the silent movies in Louisiana, but professional wasn’t even in the books then, I think. Music always seems to find me rather than me finding it.”  

Two examples are Irma Thomas and Professor Longhair. When she was 13, Marcia saw Irma Thomas in New Orleans. “That was my first big professional type show, and I knew there was probably the royalty of New Orleans music involved, but all I remember was Irma because, for one thing, I don’t think I’d ever seen a woman who was in charge of the stage. She was the star of that part of the show and took the stage, and I was just blown away. I loved New Orleans music on records anyway.” 

Thirty-six years later, in 1998, Marcia recorded Sing It! with Irma and Tracy Nelson. “Tracy had the same history of seeking Irma, but by the time I was with her, I’d been working in music a long time. I wasn’t by any means at her level of legendary, which she already was even then, but by that time, I was a professional musician, and so was Tracy.” 

Tinsley is much more nuanced than the average blues rocker. He comes from Atlanta, and there’s an Allman Brothers flavor to his playing, but he brought his 1937 National steel guitar to his Caffe Lena gig last year and pulled it out to play along with his usual electric guitar. Proprietor Sarah Craig took him aside backstage and said basically, “more of this, please.” So, when he was setting up his spring tour, he told his agent his number one stop had to be Caffe Lena. 

“I bought the National steel guitar at a store in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’d gone into that store a lot of times and never bought anything.  I think they were shocked, stunned, and amazed when I actually bought something. They had all these National steels, and I had one that I’d been using until I got this one eight years ago, and it was a knockoff of this, and I wanted the real thing. So, they had a bunch of them up in here, and those guitars are made to play Hawaiian music which was a big craze in the 1930s, but blues musicians got a hold of them because they make a lot of racket, and now it’s a blues instrument. It started off as Hawaiian.” 

Tinsley and Marcia both will do their own sets at Lena’s and then do some songs together. Bob Dylan first played The Caffe Lena in 1960, two years before he signed with Columbia Records. So, it makes sense that they will do a Dylan song together. 

“Sometimes, we do a Jimmy Reed, and he takes the lead,” says Marcia. “I’ve got a song that I have written. I’ve done a couple of them more along the lines of traditional blues songs. I’ve got one called “Get You A Woman,” that’s kinda like the “Got My Mojo Working” sort of thing. Tinsley is deeply knowledgeable of all kinds of music, and that’s inspiring me. Makes me think, ok, you need to get out there and listen more.” 

These two road warriors have created a mutual admiration society during this tour. “I didn’t know Tinsley well going into this,” says Marcia. “We had just played one time together, and I know we’d crossed paths, and we played Oklahoma City not long ago. He contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in doing something like this, and I said, ‘Sure.’ And off we had gone, and we’re off on the road. We’re doing it, and it’s going well. He’s super nice. I really do like him.” 

“There’s strength in numbers,” explains Tinsley, “and I think every show needs to be an event. When I’ve been paired with other artists in the past, we tend to play better shows and have better attendance, but there’s also the camaraderie, and the goal is to have the whole greater than the sum of the parts. I think that’s what’s happening on this tour. That’s how I see it going, and Marcia and I got booked in Dolly World, which is Dolly Parton’s theme park.” 

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