In one sentence, Tinsley Ellis perfectly sums up his two decades as an itinerant blues-rocker: "I like to say, it's been a long, hard climb to the middle."
Rest assured that when Ellis suggests that he likes to say that, he means it.
He may be slinging his guitar in the same Buffalo club that held his first area performance some 20 years ago, but neither his charming presence nor charring playing have lost a drop of enthusiasm. Tonight's two-show date with Nietzsche's celebrates his remarkable return to stalwart blues label Alligator Records with his first live album as a solo artist. The Atlanta native will play two different sets for only one cover charge, with the sly piano stylings of Anne Phillippone featured before and between.
"Live -- Highwayman," Ellis' first Alligator release since 1997's "Fire It Up," is a stirring portrait of an artist in full bloom. Captured in March during a two-night stay at the Chord On Blues Club outside of Chicago, Ellis and his white-knuckled, Southern rock soul douse the room with half sweat, half gasoline, and deliver a 77-minute scorching, backed by a stellar trio (Todd Hamric, keyboards, backup vocals; "The Evil One," bass, backup vocals; Jeff Burch, drums). With a weathered tone, Ellis is always on the attack -- at times he brandishes his ax, others he seems to be battling against it. Either way, his delivery is fierce, making even down-tempo tunes piercing.
The flames were surely fanned by his sure-fire fans, who through TinsleyEllis.com, were asked to not only come to the shows (14 states were reportedly represented), but to help select the set list. With little exception, the fans' choices mirrored those of Ellis.
"A studio owner in Atlanta once told me these great words of wisdom: 'You can't go wrong making an album for your fans,' " Ellis recalled, after a show earlier this week in Rockland, Maine. "It's a great caveat."
Ellis goes to inspiring lengths to keep connected with his audience. He openly accepts and listens to any album or demo handed to him by anyone and spoke with optimistic passion -- and experience -- about the search for a new young slinger to bring the blues back into mainstream spotlight.
"We could use another Stevie Ray Vaughan," he said. "Someone to attract young people back to the genre."
He knows he's not the man for the task, but he's certainly done his part. A few years back, after a backstage jam with a Midwestern kid of barely 14 years, he invited Jonny Lang to open for him in Chicago and what was Lang's New York debut. Lang's first album, "Lie to Me," went double platinum and contained the Ellis-penned "A Quitter Never Wins" (which also appears on "Highwayman"). But Lang seems to have lost his grasp on the torch -- so where is the next blues prophet?
"Somewhere in some small town, there's a kid in the bedroom of his parent's house playing along to Howlin' Wolf songs," Ellis proclaimed. "He may not be ready yet, but he'll come along, and I'm ready to meet him."
Whether or not that kid rides his bike to Nietzsche's tonight with his guitar on his back, Ellis still expects to have a blast. "Nietzsche's has always been one of my favorite stops," he said. "It's not a room known for blues, per say, it's a room known for eclectic music. (Owner) Joe (Rubino has) always got an ear out for something different. They even have the same sound man from my first show there 20 years ago -- Kenny (Maggs) knows our sound.
"It feels like a comfortable pair of shoes when I'm there. And it's a funky neighborhood, too."