Devil May Care is vocalist/guitarist/ songwriter Tinsley Ellis’ 20th album and his chief collaborator, producer/engineer/keyboardist Kevin McKendree has been aboard in one or multiple capacities for 15 of them. It also marks Ellis’ return to the venerable Alligator Records- the same label where he made his solo debut in 1988 with Georgia Blue.
The pandemic gave Ellis the opportunity to play his many guitars, amps, slides, and other instruments. In addition, with the extra time afforded by being off the road for the first time in 40 years, he listened to more music and was thus inspired in some new ways, as well as to revisit some of the core sounds that have formed his blues-rock attack. Ultimately, he wrote 200 new songs, culling it down to just ten for this effort.
Ellis renders most of these tunes just with his regular studio band of McKendree on piano and organ, Steve Mackey on bass, and Lynn Williams on drums. Jim Hoke (sax) and Andrew Carney (trumpet) play on three tracks. As Ellis says, “the goal was to make the guitar sing” and indeed he rips off his signature incendiary solos in each tune, staying in service to the song as his deep, growling vocals match the guitar’s intensity. The first two tunes, “One Less Reason” and “Right Down the Drain” are unyielding, potent Southern blues rockers with stratospheric solos, especially in the latter. He slows it down for the Allman Brothers-like “Just Like Rain,” with his pure guitar tone bathed in McKendree’s B3, colored by the two horns. The horns and combustible energy return in the title track that, at least to these ears, rhythmically and lyrically is styled along the lines of John Mayall, albeit with another soaring guitar excursion.
The requisite calm follows in the smoldering “Don’t Bury Our Love,” an emotionally charged, impeccably rendered blues with a spiraling solo that cuts deep to the bone. The vocal treatment and McKendree’s swirling organ faintly echo the strains of the Al Kooper-led Blood, Sweat, & Tears. “Juju” is a straight-ahead blues rocker with Ellis on the slide in Chicago-blues style and McKendree playing both organ and piano. “Step Up” unabashedly nods to Hendrix as does “28 Days,” the latter even employing wah-wah and pedal effects we associate with the guitar god. “One Last Ride” is a mid-tempo blues rocker with a gradually building Ellis solo midway and a slashing, reaching one on the outro. Ellis returns to his penchant for songs with “hell” in the title in “Slow Train to Hell,” reminding us of his 2020 title track “Ice Cream In Hell.” It’s another slow burner, filled with perhaps his most deliberate, restrained guitar work of any cut, pure blues with resonating tone.
Whether its southern rock, flat-out rock n’ roll, or aching slow blues Ellis is in complete command and at times reaches that point that few guitarists reach – where he delivers piercing solos that induce a spine-tingling, chilling effect. Yet, to borrow a lyric from Robert Cray, this album is “just another notch on my (his) guitar.” When name-dropping top guitarists such as Hendrix, Clapton, Haynes, Trucks, Lang, or others, the consistently strong Ellis has long proven that he belongs in that same conversation.