Winning Hand, the new album from Tinsley Ellis on Alligator Records, is the veteran bluesman at his finest as a songwriter and guitarist. The epic six-minute slow blues “Gamblin’ Man” is alone worth the price, but the album is packed with hard-hitting, groove-driven electric blues.
In the very first track an unexpected key change introduces a wailing guitar solo that brings Jimi Hendrix to mind, and throughout the album Ellis’s titanic, elemental solos cut like a leopard’s fangs. Kevin McKendree lays down organ and piano lines that rock between screaming and sensitive, while Steve Mackey and Lynn Williams motor it all unstoppably forward on bass and drums respectively.
The songs span Chicago blues, rock, and soul with ease, whether Ellis is playing a Gibson or a Fender guitar. (For guitar enthusiasts, the CD insert notes the exact instrument he played on each track.) The album delivers a dose of just about everything electric blues can offer: the darkly contemplative mid-tempo rock of “Autumn Run,” the loping, surging drive of “Soul of a Broken Man,” the snaky minor-key orchestral blues of “Don’t Turn Off the Light.” Ellis decorates the insistent soul of “I Got Mine” (one of my favorite tracks) with the sweet sound of a 1959 Fender Telecaster, while the rattle of McKendree’s barrelhouse piano sustains the good-time Chuck Berry crunch of “Satisfied.” The band even cooks up a bit of New Orleans gumbo with the album’s sole cover, Leon Russell’s “Dixie Lullaby.”
Though a capable singer, Ellis has always spoken most eloquently through the guitar, and nothing has changed about that. Great bluesman that he is, he can speak volumes in a few well-placed notes. Listen to the meltingly emotional solo in “Don’t Turn Off the Light” and you’ll have no doubt.
The disc ends with “Saving Grace,” nearly nine minutes of slow Allman-esque minor-key blues that works a few structural and sonic surprises into the tried-and-true. But Winning Hand doesn’t need a saving grace; it’s a winner all the way through. Available for pre-order at Alligator’s website and Amazon.com, it comes out Jan. 12, 2018, the same day Ellis launches a nationwide tour in his hometown of Atlanta.