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Tinsley Ellis - Ice Cream In Hell

Release date: January 31, 2020

Alligator Records

11 Tracks / 51:01 By Mark Thompson

After seeing B.B. King for the first time, there was never any question what the aspiring guitarist Tinsley Ellis would be pursuing as his life's ambition. Four decades later, Ellis is still on the road, playing his brand of blazing blues mixed with plenty of rock overtones for enthralled audiences for upwards of 150 shows a year. As he once stated, “A musician never got famous staying home.” His latest, the tenth for Alligator Records and twentieth release of his career, delves deep into the wrong side of love, where hurt and deception run rampant, seemingly with little hope of reaching the redemptive power of love.

The title track makes that perfectly clear as Ellis offers a modern take on the “cold day in hell” theme, assuring a lost lover that she can skip the crocodile tears because “When they serve ice cream in hell, I'm gonna take you back.” To emphasize the point, he lays down two scorching solos that reaffirm his emotional state. “Last One To Know” has an Albert King feel to it as Ellis finds himself battling to maintain a fraying relationship, with strong horn accents from Jim Hoke on saxophone and Quentin Ware on trumpet. The duo return on the minor key slow blues, “Hole In My Heart,” one of the disc's many highlights. Using his brusque voice to great effect, Ellis conveys the downward spiral of his emotions, summing up all the anguish with “...ever since we've been apart, I've got a hole shaped like you in my heart,” then making a valiant attempt to find salvation through his guitar.

Switching to slide guitar, Ellis tears through “Sit Tight Mama,” a raucous romp that recalls Hound Dog Taylor, with Steve Mackey on bass and Lynn Williams on drums filling in as the Houserockers, Taylor's backing band. “Evil Till Sunrise” is a driving rocker with a compelling guitar line at the center, the leader expressing satisfaction with the sentiment in the song's title. The rumba-style rhythm on “Everything And Everyone” features co-producer Kevin McKendree on organ, filling the space behind torrid guitar licks from Ellis, who sends out a plea for a harmonious world order. Things take a livelier turn on “Don't Know Beans,” but the situation is still dire on a song that examines the vicious circle when rumors start to fly in a world where dogs would be in charge if they could only talk about all that they have witnessed.

The hurt continues on “Unlock My Heart,” a sturdy shuffle with guitar licks that hit with the bite of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, with some dazzling piano from McKendree as Ellis seeks relief from a no-good woman. “No Stroll In The Park” is another hard as nails original that gives McKendree an opportunity to stretch out on the organ while Ellis bemoans yet another love affair on the rocks. The sprightly tempo on “Foolin' Yourself” can't hide the fact that the love train broke down well short of Happyville.

Another minor key slow blues makes the perfect closing hymn. “Your Love Is Like Heroin” is a dark meditation on longing for the love that once was, knowing that it will never be again. Ellis fires off cutting licks, using space to build the tension as he pours out his despair, until the only thing left is to once again seek solace through his guitar. It provides a fitting coda for an album that is one of the best of Ellis' lengthy career. Great original material, strong vocals, and standout guitar playing all manage to counteract the dim views of human interactions that pervade the disc. This one easily qualifies for a strong recommendation.

About the Author: Mark Thompson lives in Bradenton, Florida and is the past president of the Suncoast Blues Society. A former Chicago area native, he also acted as the president of Rockford/Byron's Crossroads Blues Society. Thompson writes for many blues publications and served on the Board for the Blues Foundation in Memphis, which hosts the annual Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge events.

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