Tinsley Ellis – Live at Variety Playhouse

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Capping off “concert week” was Tinsley Ellis, a local and long-time blues guitarist.  A coworker turned me on to him years ago.  Each city seems to have a “favored bluesman” who rises above those who don’t play beyond local clubs but still fall short of the recognition and earning power of the “big name” players.  So, Ellis falls within the journeyman category, playing some traditional blues as well as straightforward blues based rockers, usually of his own.

This particular weekend, Ellis ended up competing with the first Shaky Knees Festival, a two day outdoor event nearby featuring a variety of good artists likely to draw a crowd.  As the weather turned out, they might consider renaming the event “Mud To Their Knees Festival.”  The fortunate result for me was that this resulted in a discount as Variety is a pretty good sized venue.  With my wife, kids, and my son’s friend, Chase, in tow, off we went.

Chase’s observation:  “We’re like the unicorn in the crowd.”  That would be the handful of not just 20’s and under, but 30’s and under, at the show.  Ten or less in my estimation, amongst maybe 500.  And three of them I brought with me.

Dean and Ewbank opened the show with a more traditional approach to the bluuntitled-1-2es, given the acoustic bass and style of singing.  Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and Led Zep’s “Going to California” were standouts for crowd appeal, converted to the trio’s sound (drums, bass, keyboards).  “Only a Matter of Time,” concerning a crow’s patient interest watching a squirrel crossing the road, was nicely introduced and succeeded in carrying through on its promise of humor.

With my wife and daughter comfortably situated in the balcony, we guys then headed for the stage front, with no competition for the prime viewing real estate.  All the old fogeys were comfortably seated.  Alas.

A local blues DJ, Black Jack from 89.3 introduced Ellis and encouraged others to get off of their seats, and some did.  We still had elbow room at the stage.

After that, it was a tale of two shows.  Standing literally feet away from Ellis, it was an amazing sight to watch him alter the knobs on his Gibson, not just for each song, but constantly between the verse and solo runs.  As it turns out, there’s enough of a pause when playing the blues where he seemed to have all the time in the world to either 1) remember what sound he wanted next or 2) determine what sound he wanted next.


This was Ellis’ first gig with his new band, whose names I didn’t note.  The drummer, though, seemed to be the happiest drummer ever.  Teeth smiling, with happy eyes.  Chase, my on the scene reporter, commented, “He was so happy it smacked me in my face.”  Something like that, but it was clear he was having a good time.


The sound mix was good, but the bass seemed to rumble indistinctively or was too loud at times.  The lighting, as always at Variety, was excellent.


But Ellis is the show, and he alternated some of his back catalogue with blues oldies and a few instrumental tracks from his latest retro instrumental album.  I hung around through several acoustic songs on his resonator guitar, which were great, then retreated to the balcony.


At which point, it was a different show, and not because Ellis opted for the Stratocaster for his remaining songs.  Up close, as I heard a woman say nearby to a friend she was inviting to join her, “This is sooooooo cool!”  The technical wizardry, combined with his personality easily witnessed up front, won me over.


From a distance, all that was lost, and it was left to the music.  And the music was good, but not nearly the same experience as watching him closely.  That's the magic of live performance, the expression in the music and in the artist.  The biggest negative was that he didn't play "Pawnbroker,” my favorite of his songs.


As a side note, my son took the below with his iPhone 5.  He captured a moment, perfectly, but... c’mon Apple.  Help us concert goers out with a better lens.


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