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Crescent Blues Music ViewsFour moonsTelarc International (CD), ASIN B0001XAJSY
Tinsley Ellis fans worldwide know him best as that hot Atlanta guitar slinger and songwriter, whose performances capture every nuance of American blues. But The Hard Way, his second release for Telarc International, reveals yet another Ellis talent: that of music producer.

Music: tinsley ellis, the hard wayGuest star Sean Costello trades his famous guitar for harp here. Guitarist Oliver Wood (King Johnson), drummers Wes Johnson and Richie Hayward, plus the versatile Kevin McKendree on keyboards contribute their expertise. The return of longtime Ellis bassist The Evil One marks a special milestone.

Helming his own release must've been a daunting project, since Ellis has been produced by major names like Eddie Offord (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) and the late, legendary Tom Dowd (Allman Brothers). However, he and his label can take pride in the polished result. The stripped-down band echoes the galvanizing live show that Ellis honed to a fine edge by years of performing on the road.

Ah, yes, the road. Ellis gets right down to business with "In the Game," a bittersweet tribute to his years as a traveling entertainer. "The road has been my school, but the rules have changed," he laments, his relentless guitar underlining the poignancy and hard nostalgia.

The focus shifts to classic blues themes of love and loss on "Let Him Down Easy," with musical expressions that run deep and defiant. Note the intimate vocal and delicate guitar on "Me Without You," or the Rick Jamesian voice distortion on the R&B-tinged "I'll Get Over You." Countrified acoustic guitar and a bright rhythm ensemble succeed on "And It Hurts," while "La La Land" beguiles with swampy, laconic allure effectively enhanced by bass and drums.

Passionate, straightforward singing boosts the appeal of the otherwise undistinguished "My Love's the Medicine." Sean Costello creates a romantic harmonica mood for the dreamy, Delta-inspired "Fountain of Youth." Despite his Southern-rocker reputation, Ellis handles these quirky, sensual blues stylings with authenticity.

The hard-driving, power instrumental "'Love Bomb" just might become an Ellis performance standard. No Ellis album would be complete without a sizzler like this. "Her Other Man" showcases the thrilling acoustic strumming not always heard at his live shows. All shivery guitar and murky New Orleans ambiance, "12 Pack Poet" hints of shadowy corners and irresistible temptations.

But alas, "The Last Song" tells of a warring couple at the end of their love-hate affair. The guitars soar with beauty and heartfelt emotion. There'll be no happy ending for this man's blues, but lucky for Tinsley Ellis fans everywhere, he and his friends play resolutely on.

Deborah M. Nigro

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