Tinsley Ellis has some great studio albums in his catalog, but like several blues guitarists, you have to see him live or at least hear him live to experience what the fuss is about. And the guitarist, backed by a strong supporting cast, delivers an exceptionally pleasing and well-rounded set on Live! Highwayman. Beginning with the standard brand of Texas or Austin blues, the musician opens with the mid-tempo "To the Devil for a Dime," which comes off as a blend of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a grittier, rowdier Robert Cray. Cray is also heard somewhat on the heartache soul of "The Last Song," which travels into epic Floyd-ian bombast near the conclusion. Setting the groove early, Ellis has an equally blues soul and voice that suits his fabulous playing to a T. From there he ventures down a slightly less edgy, more swinging vibe on the bouncy, sway-inducing title track the way B.B. King would've performed it in his prime. It's also on this number where you get to see the guitar chops of Ellis front and center. Even the slower, downbeat tunes are strong, especially the deliberately building "A Quitter Never Wins," which brings to mind Cray and Buddy Guy. About halfway through the song he displays his style before asking if any blues fans are in attendance. The second half of the number is more of a rock-blues style à la David Gilmour but just as solid. The first track that seems to be almost run of the mill is the mid-tempo and keyboard-tinted "Real Bad Way" although Ellis manages to play off it well two-thirds of the way in. One of the first sleeper picks is "Hell or High Water," which has the band picking up steam thanks to the Evil One's rapid-fire bass line and Ellis upping the ante. And this flows nicely into the up-tempo, high-energy "The Next Miss Wrong," which could be described by some as Waylon Jennings nailing an old blues tune. Just makes you start to boogie wherever you may be. The crowning moment might be the terrific rendition of "Pawnbroker," a ten-minute tune that reeks of blues-rock that groups like Big Sugar and Wide Mouth Mason dream of. Above all, Ellis has the blues coursing through his bloodstream, especially on the tired-of-appeasing tone on "The Axe." "Double Eyed Whammy" resembles a blues tune funneled through Motown, but on the whole Ellis shows why he is the best, if not the most underrated, axeman in the blues business.
AllMusic Review by Jason MacNeil
feat: Steve Chapman