Album Reviews

Tinsley Ellis

Winning Hand

Artist:     Tinsley Ellis

Album:     Winning Hand

Label:     Alligator

Release Date:     01.12.2018


Tinsley Ellis marks his return to Alligator where he debuted 30 years ago with this fiery, guitar-driven effort, Winning Hand. Just last year, upon the release of his fourth album under his own Heartfixin ’label, we wrote “Today Ellis continues to evolve as one of the best writers and vocalists in blues.” While Winning Hand also features keyboards and production from long-time cohort Kevin McKendree, Ellis wanted to be sure he came with the incendiary guitar power that stamped his previous nine Alligator releases. “Guitar, guitar, guitar is what this album is all about” —Ellis used five guitars in all, as pictured and delineated by track in the liners, recording primarily with his 1959 Fender Stratocaster, his 1967 Gibson ES 345, a 1973 Les Paul Deluxe and a 2000 Les Paul Standard.

Despite the shift in label, Ellis kept the same unit he has consistently recorded with over the past several albums: Kevin McKendree and the rhythm section of bassist Steve Mackey and drummer Lynn Williams. The sessions were once again done in Nashville at McKendree’s studio. Now well into his fourth decade of recording and performing, Ellis sounds as torrid and fresh as ever, wielding his axe with soul-drenched blues-rock across nine originals and just one cover, the Leon Russell/Chris Stainton “Dixie Lullaby.”

Ellis begins with the funky, wah-wah driven “Sound of a Broken Man” featuring string bending notes and swirling organ of McKendree. Following the shuffle “Nothing But Fine” is perhaps the album’s best track, the slow-simmering blues of “Gamblin’ Man” whose the line “winning hand” gave the album its title. His slow, spiraling, piercing solo underpinned by McKendree’s electric piano is as representative of Ellis’ signature guitar style as any passage on the disc. The album continues to unfold in alternating up-tempo rockers and slower ballads like the melodic “Autumn Run.” “Satisfied’ is straight-ahead rock n’ roll, featuring McKendree’s boogie-woogie piano. The band comes off that rouser with another melodic turn on “Don’t Turn Off the Light.” The album closes with epic slow molten guitar in “Saving Grace,” as pure a blues cut as any here, with an equally anguished vocal.

Ellis seems determined to show us that, in baseball parlance, he has lost nothing on his fastball. If you moved away from Ellis after his Alligator years, you’ll find him as vital as ever—and he’s a stronger songwriter and better singer now. You should also revisit his work on all four of his own Heartfixin’ releases. Not only is Ellis a master guitarist, he’s one of the most complete blues artists we have today.

—Jim Hynes

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  1. I caught the opening night of his tour in Atlanta on Friday. Tinsley is at the top of his game. No better blues guitarist on the planet.