There's nothing easy about guitarist Tinsley Ellis' brand of the blues. Even on those occasions when he slows the tempo a little or softens a few of the edges, his rich guitar work and impassioned vocals never fail to take an unflinching look at the harder edges of everyday life.
Following up on the success of Hell or High Water, his 2002 debut on the Telarc label, Ellis digs even deeper and rocks even harder in his new one, The Hard Way. From the opening riff of "Still in the Game," a track that harkens back to the heyday of Cream, the Allman Brothers and other blues-based guitar rock combos of the late '60s and early '70s, The Hard Way churns through a dozen tracks that explore the best of the blues and rock traditions—with a few shades of R&B thrown in for variety and texture.
While The Hard Way marks Ellis' ninth album in a career that spans more than two decades, it's his first in which he works as producer as well as performer. Yet despite the challenges of this dual role in the studio, he's clearly up for the challenge on both fronts.
He takes on the eternal topic of love gone bad—the granddaddy of all blues woes—with midtempo tracks like "Me Without You" and "I'll Get Over You," and makes a brief foray into inner space with the sparse and psychedelic "La La Land." The rousing "My Love's the Medicine," reminiscent of the classic Stax sound, sets up a more optimistic counterpoint to the aforementioned hard-luck tales, while the laid-back "Fountain of Youth" features a guest appearance by Sean Costello—a hard-edged blues guitarist in his own right who does a surprise turn on harp. And just when the pace seems to be easing up just slightly, Ellis opens the throttle and cuts loose with the fiery instrumental "Love Bomb."
In addition to his core outfit of drummer Richie Hayward (a founding member of Little Feat) and a bassist known simply as "The Evil One," Ellis enlists the help of some high-level guest musicians to round out the recording. Guitarist Oliver Wood offers some fine counterpoint to Ellis' straightahead fretwork, while Count M'butu adds an exotic touch with congas, bongos and various other percussion devices. The well-placed organ riffs of keyboardist Kevin McKendree (musical director for Delbert McClinton) add a dimension of R&B to the recording, as do the backing vocals of Donna Hopkins, Lola Gulley and Vicki Salz.
But it's Tinsley Ellis and his guitar that have the last word, right down to the final crunching riffs of his anguished and mournful "The Last Song." The Hard Way is exactly what the title promises—a hard-edged blues-rock mix that takes a powerful swing at some of life's toughest challenges and emerges victorious in the end.