With her bluesy intonation and trademark gusty delivery, it is a wonder that singer/songwriter Ellen McIlwaine (guitar/piano/vocals) wasn't more commercially successful. This single-disc anthology encompasses her first two solo platters Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We the People (1973), with a sole unissued reading of the soul classic "It's Growing." After spending a majority of her youth in Japan with her missionary parents, McIlwaine and family settled in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1960s. Her first love was the Creole-based sound of artists such as Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, however, it was McIlwaine's admitted infatuation with the clean, stinging licks of bluesman B.B. King that would yield the more obvious inspiration. After moving to New York City in the mid-'60s, she was quickly ingratiated into the fertile electric folk scene, where she sat in with or opened up for the likes of Muddy Waters, Elvin Bishop and even befriended another newcomer named Jimi Hendrix -- prior to his U.K. defection in 1966. After forming the edgy and rowdy combo Fear Itself and releasing one all-but-dismissed long-player, McIlwaine decided to go it alone. After signing with Polydor, she commenced work on Honky Tonk Angel, which was documented both on-stage at the venerable Bitter End in New York City, as well as in the studio at the equally luminous Record Plant. Her aggressive and diverse cover versions were taken from a wide array of styles, such as Johnnie Taylor's Memphis soul on "Toe Hold" to the Kitty Wells country classic "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." Perhaps most interesting is the thoroughly inventive reading of Guy Warren's African jazz on "Pinebo (My Story)." McIlwaine provided some a few stunning originals, including the woozy slide guitar blues rave-up "Losing You" as well as the upbeat and funky "Wings of a Horse." These strong compositions became a precursor to her follow-up We the People, as it drew more heavily upon her own material. Among the highlights are McIlwaine's profound fretwork on "Ain't No Two Ways to It (It's Love)," the languid and dreamy "Underground River" and the palpitation-inducing acoustic-raga, "We the People." The selection is not only the title track, but the album's sole live cut, recorded at Carnegie Hall during her support slot for the progressive Latin-fused funk of Mandrill. Talk about your eclectic double-bill!
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AllMusic Review by Lindsay Planer