July  2002

Tinsley Ellis - Hell or High Water
Telarc CD-83531
Released: 2002

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on DVD]Telarc recorded Hell or High Water under the umbrella of its blues label, but this disc could have been used to launch a new swamp-rock division. However, it doesn't much matter what label you choose to file this album under, 'cause whatever it is, it rocks, it grooves and it brings you down then lifts you up. It’s the kind of music that feeds one's soul.

Echoes of early Jeff Beck, John Mayall, Cream, The Animals and other blues-drenched British bands flow through the music of Tinsley Ellis. Ellis also listened to real American bluesmen and rockers during that same period -- B. B. King, Elmore James, Johnny Winter, Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughn provided inspiration, too. Examples of these influences pervade this album on songs such as "All I Can Do" and "Feeling No Pain."

Ellis, who wrote all the songs here, plays lead guitar and sings lead vocals. With the support of guitarist Kenny Kilgore, bassist Phillip "Philzone" Skipper, drummer Scott Callison, pianist/organist Kevin McKendree and background singer Donna Hopkins (who really shines here), Ellis plows fertile ground in this rich loam of differing musical styles. It also helps when you have a producer you’ve worked with before, as Ellis does here with Eddy Offord.

Hell or HighWater also benefits from Telarc’s usual superb sonics. Despite an overabundance of electronic instrumentation, each player is clearly laid out within the disc's wide, somewhat deep soundstage. The vocals could be a tad fuller, but at least they’re clean. What isn’t lacking is Ellis’ guitar work. It’s superb and easy to follow.

If the hallmark of a good album is that it’ll make you want to listen to more of its particular artist, then Hell or High Water is a great album. Call it blues, call it swamp rock, call it R&B, call it what you will, there’s something for everyone to enjoy here. Tinsley Ellis’ music has a realness that grabs you right from the get-go and never lets up. And if there is nothing new or innovative here, there is instead a distillation of all the influences that shaped Tinsley Ellis’ life -- and that makes for a heady brew. I hope Ellis and I grow old drinking it together.