When you’re a blues singer and guitarist, it’s a little dangerous to lead off an album with a song called “I Ain’t Got No Blues Today.” Especially when there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about it: “I ain’t got no blues today / No matter what them folks might say / I done my best / I paid my dues.
” You might as well say, “Go home. I don’t have what you’re looking for.”
Yet here’s the Quad Cities’ longtime bluesman, Ellis Kell, announcing that he doesn’t have much to complain about on Ellis Kell Band & Friends 2000, his second album.
But the song is as much an invitation as a warning. When you’ve done your time, he says, you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want. Or maybe Kell puts it best in some notes on his new songs: “It’s okay to bend the blues.”
Kell does that a lot on the new album. You can hear it in some novel song introductions – like on “Lucky Dog,” which begins with a funky but muted harmonica-guitar give-and-take (I think) before exploding into a Little Richard-like rocker about a loyal pooch – and throughout 13 generally strong songs that bounce far from the blues and back again, like the rubber ball inevitably getting drawn back to the paddle.
Kell’s certainly an able guitarist, but he’s not from the school of wanker blues. As the opening song suggests, he’s a confident frontman who doesn’t need to hog the spotlight. There are as many piano solos (by Rick Stoneking, who also penned the horn-punctuated “What’s on Your Mind”) and harmonica blows as guitar breaks, and that gives the record a loose and easy band feel.
Some of the slower songs, though, suffer without a driving musical backdrop, and Kell’s voice by itself has trouble carrying the load. His vocals can fill up a song, but he seems to require a compelling safety net underneath. That’s not so much a criticism of the singer as the songs. “What Can We Do Now” sounds aborted, fading out like a thought abandoned in mid-expression. The political ballad “A Charles Towne Aire” is far too earnest and sappy for its own good, a lesson that it’s great to stretch boundaries, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.
Fortunately, Kell and Company step right more frequently than wrong. The bad taste of “A Charles Towne Aire” is quickly erased by the simple, youthful boogie fun of “Roadsong”: “It’s my own song / It took me so long.”
“Sticks ‘n Stones” is a good ol’ fashioned folk song with a nice Irish flavor supplied by flute and whistle, and some backward-tape effects that sound just as natural as could be. “Tilta Whirl” lurches about, an effective musical metaphor for discombobulation. And “Country Blues” is an effectively Western take on his signature style, perfect for a campfire jam.
If there’s a downside to playing whatever felt right, it’s that 2000 lacks cohesion and a unity of purpose. Kell seemed to understand that; he’s sequenced the album in an alternating blues/not-blues way, making sure that fans don’t have to wait too long before they get what they came for.
And Kell keeps coming back to the blues. While the other material is nearly always serviceable and often quite good, when you’ve got the blues ringing in your ears, it’s wise to heed the call.
And digressions aside, the reason to buy Ellis Kell Band & Friends 2000 is the blues. Kell’s gifts are ample, and he has a keen sense of the studio. It’s always difficult to capture the blues in sterile surroundings without an audience; the songs often feel like blueprints for live performance.
But the blues of 2000 lose nothing on CD. They’re as vital and heartfelt as they could ever be.