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ABOUT THE ARTIST
Over the last half a dozen years or so, John Moreland’s honesty has stunned us––and stung. As he put hurts we didn’t even realize we had or shared into his songs, we sang along. And we felt better. But there has always been far more to Moreland than sad songs. Today, his earthbound poetry remains potent, but in addition to his world-weary candor, Moreland’s music smolders with gentle wisdom, flashes of wit and joy, and compassion. And once again, as we listen, we feel better.
“I can’t dress myself up and be some folk singer character that I’m not really,” Moreland says. “I figured, I can’t dress up these songs and try to sell them that way. All I can do is be me.”
Out February 2020, his latest album LP5 proves John Moreland has gotten really good at being John Moreland––thank God. A masterful display of songwriting by one of today’s best young practitioners of the art form, LP5 is Moreland’s finest record to date. The album’s experimentations with instrumentation and sounds capture an artist whose confidence has grown, all without abandoning the hardy roots rock bed and the lyrics-first approach Moreland’s work demands. “I feel like just this year, in the past few months, I’ve reached a point where I feel like I know what I’m doing here now,” he says. “And I feel comfortable with it.”
There was a time when Moreland thought LP5 may not happen. Wary of expectations and his cemented status as a writer’s writer and critical darling, the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Moreland found writing difficult at best––and completely undesirable at worst. “I’m hesitant to talk about it because I know people don’t want to hear some dude complaining that his dream of being a successful musician came true, but there are things about it that you don’t expect that can mess you up,” Moreland says. “One of the results of that was I really didn’t want to write songs for a couple of years.” He pauses and sighs. “One of the ways I got back into liking music again was to let go of the idea that every time I’d go mess around with an instrument, I’d have to be writing a really good song. I just gave myself the freedom to go into my little music room every day and mess around with different instruments and different sounds. It doesn’t have to be anything. It doesn’t have to result in anything.”
Moreland points to that liberating rediscovery as a major influence on the sonic choices that shape LP5. There is no grand or alarming stylistic departure here––just different textures and background layers that add muscly new dimensions to Moreland’s heretofore instrumentally sparse recordings. The record also marks Moreland’s first time working with a producer. He chose Matt Pence. “I wouldn’t say that he pushed me into trying anything that I didn’t already want to do, but I think I came in with a lot of ideas that I found interesting but didn’t know how to execute. Matt was great at expanding on those things,” Moreland says.
For Moreland, falling back in love with music also coincided with an even more personal change. “This past year, I’ve been getting into mindfulness and being kinder to myself,” he says. “I was really on that wave when I started writing these songs. I guess it shows.”
It does show––beautifully. Album opener “Harder Dreams” is a clear-eyed confession, not of wrongdoing, but of disbelief in a life defined by unworthiness and threatened by damnation. Echoing percussive punches make the music sound like a transmitted message, fighting its way through the atmosphere. Punctuated by keys and fuzzy guitar, “Terrestrial” picks up on the same idea, and delivers the kind of killer line we’ve come to expect from Moreland: “As a child I repented my nature, till as a man, I repented my past.”
“It goes back to being kind to yourself,” Moreland says. “Part of that process for me was realizing all the ways I have been taught or learned to be cruel to myself or to hate myself through my life. A big source of that was church for me. They teach you that you’re bad and you have to repent for what you are. Now, I feel like I’ve grown up, and I repent for that––because that was a sin against myself.”
Slow-burning blues song “A Thought is Just a Passing Train” quells worry with the truth: “I had a thought about darkness. / A thought’s just a passing train,” Moreland sings. His gravelly voice, capable of both hushed devastation and rock-anthem growls, sounds more powerful than ever. “Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth” is both wry and gorgeous––a rare combination Moreland is uniquely suited to perfect. “I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground” unfurls into a plea and admission, while harmonica-rich “Let Me Be Understood” looks backward with new eyes and embraces enlightenment. Two instrumentals offer meditative pauses: “Two Stars” plays like a lilting acoustic guitar lullaby, while “For Ichiro” breaks with expectations to revel in mesmerizing keys and trills.
Moreland wrote “When My Fever Breaks” for his wife. He started the song when the two were dating, then finished it three years later. The track is a tribute to the trust and comfort that come with being loved well. “It took me a long time to write it,” he says. “It was hard to figure out, how do I write the kind of love song that I am comfortable with?”
Achingly beautiful “In the Times Between” was inspired by Moreland’s friend Chris Porter, a singer-songwriter who died on the road in 2016. Moreland wrote the song about two weeks after Porter passed, when the pain was still heavy and constant. Line after line captures moments Porter’s presence is felt––as well as his absence.
With its winsome singalong chorus and big organ chords, “East October” is a striking highlight. The song’s title nods to Porter, whose song “East December” reframed time as progress from east to west. Moreland’s song asks tough questions with tender persistence.
When pressed about the hard-won wisdom and peace that seem to define LP5, Moreland is characteristically both direct and humble. “I definitely am wiser than I was five years ago––I guess anybody would hope to be wiser than they were five years ago,” he says with a laugh. “But I do feel more mellow. Settled. I don’t feel as antsy or think I’ve got to prove myself anymore. I feel really comfortable and free to just do what I want to do.”
“Feral blues guitar…non-stop gigging has sharpened his six-string to a razor’s edge…his eloquence dazzles…he achieves pyrotechnics that rival early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.” –Rolling Stone
“One of modern blues’ greatest guitarists and performers.” –Vintage Guitar
“Rugged, burning and riveting…Tinsley Ellis is a powerful and commanding presence, both on guitar and as a gruff, full-throated vocalist. It’s hard to overstate the raw power of his music. It’s impossible not to enjoy the ride.” –Blues Music Magazine
“Powerful, spine-tingling guitar and gritty, soulful vocals…an inspired and passionate fusion of blues and Southern rock.” –Relix
World renowned Southern blues-rock guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Tinsley Ellis—like every other musician—was caught off guard when the pandemic shutdown hit in March 2020. Ellis was forced to cancel the tour promoting his just-released album, Ice Cream In Hell, only six weeks into the 60-date run. This would be the first time in 40 years he’d be off the road, and as he drove the 2400 miles home from Reno to Atlanta, he was already formulating his future plans.
Ellis resolved to dedicate his pandemic-forced downtime to creating new songs and growing as a songwriter. To get back to his musical roots, he began composing on amps and guitars that he hadn’t used for decades. He explored obscure studio and live recordings from some of his greatest musical heroes, such as the Allman Brothers, Freddie King, Michael Bloomfield, B.B. King and beyond, and was inspired by his favorite artists all over again. Eighteen months later, Ellis had written an astonishing 200 new songs.
Explains Ellis, “There was a lot of time to experiment. In my downstairs studio I set up every guitar and amp that I owned, plus a Leslie cabinet, an old wooden Wurlitzer electric piano, an old Maestro Echoplex tape delay and 30 or 40 glass, steel and brass slides. Experimenting with different gear set ups inspired the songwriting. Plus, I was able to listen to more music than I had since the 1970s. My imagination was fired up!”
As early as April 2020, he began regularly releasing his new material online, keeping his thousands of fans engaged and soaking up their comments and responses. He knew, thanks to the reactions of his fans to his new songs, that he needed to make a record and get back on the road as soon as possible. Ellis whittled his massive song list down to ten, enlisted his friend and co-producer, keyboard master Kevin McKendree, and headed for Franklin, Tennessee’s famous Rock House recording studio. The result is Ellis’ new Alligator album, Devil May Care, a record Ellis says, “is for the fans as much as for me.”
Devil May Care, Ellis’ 20th album, contains ten of his most dynamic original compositions, mixing muscular rock ‘n’ roll and hard blues into his own instantly recognizable sound. Highlights include the Southern rock-tinged opening trio of songs—One Less Reason, Right Down The Drain and Just Like Rain—to the slow-burning Don’t Bury Our Love to the Hendrix-y Step Up and 28 Days. The emotionally-charged guitar solos soar in full service to the songs, as if Ellis is living and breathing the sound rather than simply playing the notes. “The goal,” says Ellis, “was to make the guitar sing.”
Tinsley Ellis has been immersed in music his whole life. Born in Atlanta 1957 and raised in southern Florida, he acquired his first guitar at age seven, inspired by seeing The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. He took to guitar instantly, developing and sharpening his skills as he grew up. Like many kids his age, Ellis discovered the blues through the back door of British Invasion bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, Cream and The Rolling Stones as well as Southern rockers like the Allman Brothers. One night in 1972, he and a friend were listening to Al Kooper and Michael Bloomfield’s Super Session record when his friend’s older brother told them that, if they liked Super Session, they should go see B.B. King, who was in town that week. Tinsley saw that show from the very front row. As fate would have it, King broke a guitar string while playing, and after changing it without missing a beat, he handed the broken string to young Tinsley. And yes, he still has that string.
Less than three years later, Ellis, already an accomplished teenaged musician, left Florida and moved to Atlanta. He soon joined a hard-driving local blues band, the Alley Cats. In 1981, along with veteran blues singer and harpist Chicago Bob Nelson, Tinsley formed The Heartfixers, a group that would become Atlanta’s top-drawing blues band. After cutting two Heartfixers albums for the Landslide label, Ellis was ready to step out on his own.
Georgia Blue, Tinsley’s first Alligator release, hit the unprepared public by surprise in 1988. The Chicago Tribune said, “Tinsley Ellis torches with molten fretwork. Ellis takes classic, Southern blues-rock workouts and jolts them to new life with a torrid ax barrage.” His next four releases—1989’s Fanning The Flames, 1992’s Trouble Time, 1994’s Storm Warning, and 1997’s Fire It Up—further grew his reputation as well as his audience. (His song A Quitter Never Wins, a highlight of Storm Warning, was recorded by Jonny Lang, selling almost two million copies.) Features and reviews ran in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and in many other national and regional publications.
In the early 2000s, Ellis released albums on Capricorn Records and on Telarc, returning to Alligator in 2005 with Live–Highwayman, which captured the fifth-gear energy of his roof-raising live show. He followed it with two more incendiary studio releases, 2007’s Moment Of Truth and 2009’s Speak No Evil. He self-released four successful albums on his own Heartfixer label before coming back home to Alligator in 2018, releasing the fan favorite Winning Hand. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart and earned him Blues Music Award (BMA) nominations for Blues Rock Album Of The Year and Blues Rock Artist Of The Year. 2020’s Ice Cream In Hell further cemented Ellis’ reputation and put him on the cusp of even greater success before all touring was brought to a halt that March. Now, with Devil May Care and a new nationwide tour booked, Ellis is more than ready to get back on the road and make up for lost time.
Ellis has been a road warrior ever since his Alligator debut. He has captivated and amazed fans in all 50 United States, as well as in Canada, all across Europe, Australia and South America. He’s also earned the love and respect of many of his fellow musicians, including Warren Haynes, Oliver Wood, Jonny Lang, Buddy Guy, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic and more. Additionally, he’s shared stages with blues legends including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, Leon Russell, Son Seals, Koko Taylor and Albert Collins. Mega-star guitarist Joe Bonamassa calls Ellis “a national treasure.” But no matter where or with whom he performs, Ellis always plays with grit, soul and unbridled passion.
According to AllMusic.com, “Ellis’ playing underscores the emotional depth in the lyrics. His meaty solos dig deep.” With Devil May Care, Ellis proves that true again, with ten jaw-dropping, career-topping performances. As he continues adding more dates to his already packed tour schedule, Ellis will bring his high-energy Southern blues-rock to fans all across the country. “It’s been a long 18 months,” he says, “and now folks are ready to have some fun.”