Although she has remained arguably unknown, Ellen McIlwaine (guitar/vocals) is one of the more profound figures to have risen through the ranks of the 1970s singer/songwriter movement. Having grown up the daughter of missionaries stationed in Japan, she gleaned eclectic (to say the least) tastes from listening to Armed Forces Radio broadcasts of Ray Charles and Professor Longhair, among others. Initially she developed significant prowess emulating her piano-pounding heroes, although she traded off for the guitar after relocating back to the States in the early 1960s. After settling in Atlanta, Georgia McIlwaine emerged as a key figure in the R&B and soul-based gospel scene. Her fretwork garnered the attention of Native American folkie Patrick Sky, who was having nominal but noticeable success in Greenwich Village. McIlwaine quickly became a fixture supporting legends such as Muddy Waters, Elvin Bishop and Tim Buckley. She returned to Atlanta forming the combo Fear Itself. Sadly, their belligerent and ballsy sound was a bit too much for the locals, yielding one mostly dismissed self-titled long-player. This rejection prompted a return to New York, where the band settled into the burgeoning upstate community in and around Woodstock. While Fear Itself were local fave raves, McIlwaine eventually split to develop her solo act, culminating in Honky Tonk Angel (1973). The album captures her remarkable live presence and equally incendiary studio sides. The entire affair was recorded in New York City, with the concert tracks documented at the Bitter End, while the remainder were cut at the Record Plant. The platter consists primarily of McIlwaine's reinventions and interpretations of everything from soul ("Toe Hold" ) and rock ("Up From the Skies") to traditional country ("It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels") and African jazz ("Pinebo (My Story)"). McIlwaine contributed a few exemplary originals, including the swaggering Delta blues of "Losing You"and the pulsating funky "Wings of a Horse." The single-disc compilation Up From the Skies: The Polydor Years (1998) features this album, and her follow-up We the People (1973), with a previously unreleased reading of Smokey Robinson's "It's Growing."
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AllMusic Review by Lindsay Planer