By James Calemine
The Hard Way represents Tinsley Ellis’ ninth solo album where for the first time he serves as the producer on his own record. These 12 songs offer an essential chapter in Ellis’ road-tested, two-decade career.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1957, Ellis began playing guitar at age seven. In his formative years, he grew up influenced by the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Freddie King, Otis Rush, and B.B. King. The Georgia guitarist started out with the Atlanta band, the Alley Cats, and in 1981 he formed the Heartfixers, a formidable blues group. Ellis cut two albums with the Heartfixers before recording his solo debut in 1988.
Ellis has played in all 50 states as well as 18 foreign countries. He often shares the stage and recording sessions with artists like Chuck Leavell, Robert Cray, Derek Trucks, Koko Taylor, The Allman Brothers Band, Widespread Panic, and Col. Bruce Hampton.
The Hard Way is Ellis’ second release on the Telarc Label. Recorded in Atlanta during October-December of 2003, Ellis wrote or co-wrote each of these compositions. Liner notes reveal this album remains dedicated to the memory of Tom Dowd and Ricky Keller.
The band includes: Little Feat’s original drummer Richie Hayward, Oliver Wood (King Johnson)/guitar, “The Evil One”/bass, Marcus James (King Johnson)/saxophone-tambourine, Count M’butu/percussion, Sean Costello/harmonica, Kevin McKendree/keyboards, and Donna Hopkins, Lola Gulley, and Vicki Salz all maintain back up vocal duties.
This 53-minute collection sounds a bit more laid back than previous Ellis releases. The first couple of songs on this album creep up on you like the potent pill you’re waiting to kick in and when it finally does, you’re knocked out loaded. With this release, it doesn’t take long for the music to take effect. The Hard Way displays a variety of styles that maintains an overall coherent sound.
“I’ve been on the road so long, I’m gone”, sings Ellis on the opening track “Still In the Game”, a tale of survival, where the songwriter learned his craft from the school of the road. “Let Him Down Easy” stands as a mellow tune with a distant jazzy Jeff Beck influence. “Me Without You” resonates as a horn-laced R & B shuffle displaying mighty fine guitar licks from Oliver Wood and Ellis.
“I’ll Get Over You” contains a funky organ with more R&B Motown sensibilities. “And It Hurts”, a fantastic acoustic song with a Ray Charles vocal feel, alone pays for the price of the CD——with the lyric: “If you want to lose everything you have, just hit the highway in a rock and roll band…”
“La La Land” emits a 70s wah-wah effect with a slow underwater vibe that keeps the listener leaning towards the speakers. “My Love’s the Medicine” contends as a great song verifying Ellis’ keen songwriting ability. “Medicine” seems like some lost track from an old Stax compilation, or some obscure Muscle Shoals recording.
“Fountain of Youth” resembles a classic Jimmy Reed rhythm with nice harmonica playing by Sean Costello. A frenetic instrumental titled “Love Bomb” sounds reminiscent of James Brown in his glory days with the JBs. A tip of the hat goes out to “The Evil One” who plays mean bass licks on this tune.
Another infectious acoustic number, “Her Other Man”, transcends any musical boundaries. The desperate lyrics, “Gonna buy me a pistol/or an engagement ring”, accompany a gritty acoustic riff constructing a great country blues song that would’ve made Eddie Hinton proud. A very strong tune.
“12 Pack Poet” creates a heavy rock and roll sound with loud electric guitars emitting hazy chords through a thick musical tapestry. A slow burning rocker, “The Last Song”, fades into silence with a nice two-minute Ellis guitar outro completing this diverse collection of songs.
Each year, Ellis plays over 200 shows. This collection reflects the work of a seasoned professional who has managed to create another batch of songs bound to transfer well during live performances. Recently Ellis said, “I’ve never stopped learning new things about playing the blues. The music is deceptively simple, but just when I think I’ve heard it all, yet another style comes to my attention, and I am challenged all over again.”
On this collection Ellis rises beyond the call of any challenge which ranks as some of his most burnishing work. The Hard Way comes highly recommended as bona-fide soulful blues.