Tinsley Ellis (Photo by Elaine Thomas Campbell)
In a recent Night of Acoustic Songs and Stories at the Pearl Street Warehouse, Tinsley Ellis and Marcia Ball delivered a variety of original songs and covers, played with virtuoso skill and sung with deep emotion. There was plenty of blues, a little rock ‘n’ roll, and some R&B, too — it was a night that showcased the diversity and appeal of Southern music.
Georgia native Ellis took the stage first at Pearl Street Warehouse on March 29 — just him and an acoustic guitar. It’s always impressive to watch a truly skilled player create such a full sound with only his single instrument. The Pearl Street Warehouse is a fairly intimate venue, and it was the perfect place for this kind of show. I’ve said before that playing solo acoustic is the most stringent test for a musician — there’s no hiding flaws in the songs or covering up deficiencies in the playing. But Ellis wasn’t the least bit “exposed” here; rather, the show served as proof of just how very talented he is.
Ellis opened the show with a few tunes from his back catalog, “Cut You Loose” and “Early In the Morning.” He then moved on to material from his latest album, last year’s Devil May Care, for which he has “high hopes and low expectations,” which is a healthy attitude. He shared how pleased he was to read one critic describe the album as “a love letter to the Allman Brothers,” who were his favorite band when he was growing up.
Stream Devil May Care by Tinsely Ellis on Spotify:
After playing two cuts from the album, “One Last Ride” and “28 Days,” he told some stories about Gregg Allman and covered a few of his songs. Gregg, he told the audience, frequently called him “Ellis Tinsley.” He also shared a remarkable quote from the later singer, songwriter, and bandleader: “I am to moderation,” Gregg said of his vices, “as Raymond Burr is to pole vaulting.” I recognized the songs “Multi-Colored Lady” and “These Days” (written by Jackson Browne) from his 1973 solo album, Laid Back.
More covers followed, one of a Sonny Boy Williamson song that’s been played by many, including Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Ellis talked about a tour he did several years celebrating the music of legendary bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. The tour included some of the musicians who played with them, like guitarists Bob Margolin, who played with Waters, and Jody Williams, from Howlin’ Wolf’s band. “The star of that tour,” he said, “was 79-year-old James Cotton.” After playing a song from that tour, he covered “Key To The Highway,” then finished his set with his own “Tough Love.”
Marcia Ball took the stage immediately following Ellis’s set. An accomplished pianist specializing in New Orleans style blues and R&B, Ball grew up on what she called “the Louisiana side of the Golden Triangle,” which extends into eastern Texas. Ball started with an old favorite, “Red Beans,” a Professor Longhair cover, and told the audience one advantage of playing solo is it allows her to dip into her back catalog as so she desires; her band can only learn so many songs. She joked that, given a title that includes a food item and the word “party,” she can always construct a tune. She followed with more of her own tunes, including “La Ti Da.”
Watch Marcia Ball perform “La Ti Da” live in La Grange, Texas, on YouTube:
Like Ellis, Ball also played some covers, including Bobby Charles’s “Party Town,” a song about New Orleans. A master songwriter and underrated performer in his own right, Charles’s music encompasses everything from funk and R&B to early Americana. Ball wrote “Where Do You Go When You Can’t Come Home?” with Tracy Nelson, best known as the lead singer of late ’60s-early ’70s blues-rock band Mother Earth. She also covered a song by John Lee Sanders, who I wasn’t previously familiar with.
Most of her songs were highly festive, like “Dance With Me” and “The Party’s Still Going On,” cowritten with longtime Buddy Guy collaborator Tom Hambridge, which closed her set. “Louisiana 1927,” which chronicled one of the many floods that bedevil that state, stood out in for highlighting a different, more sombre emotional timber in Ball’s songwriting. For most of the set, she was accompanied on sax.
After Ball finished her solo portion of the evening, Ellis joined her on stage and they did a number of tunes together to close out the show, including covers of Jimmy Reed, Bob Dylan (“I Threw It All Away”), and Ball’s “Luella.” The crowd gave them a well-earned standing ovation.
I’d seen Ball before, but it’s been several years, and she continues to put on an excellent show. This was my first time seeing Ellis, who very much impressed me; I’d love to see what he can do with a full band. Whether they’re playing solo or accompanied, Ball and Ellis are fantastic, and absolutely worth your time to come out see. If you haven’t head there music, you’re in for a treat!