On paper, the Grateful Dead was a blues band. If you look beyond the Ken Kesey acid-tests, the 20-minute extended jams, the fantastic early records, the mediocre later records, and the traveling shit-show that Grateful Dead tours became in the 1990s, you’ll see and hear at their core they were a rock ’n’ roll band playing blues music, a psychedelic package of American roots music that many took a grip to with no intention of ever letting go. There remains a constant interest in the Grateful Dead; from those lucky enough to catch them in the ’70s to those putting up with John Mayer as a member in 2017. Even among the legions of haters, most music fans can cite a period, an album, or even one song from their storied careers that’s acceptable; if you can’t, you’re just not really trying.
Southern blues guitar player Tinsley Ellis has always carried a torch for the Grateful Dead. The Atlanta-based guitar player will return to Durango next week, performing Wednesday at the Henry Strater Theatre. He’s bringing his new project that’s titled “Blues is Dead,” honoring the blues tunes that inspired the fabled San Francisco band, which would also include nods to other San Francisco and classic Fillmore-era acts.
As someone whose contemporaries include Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, Ellis is more than qualified to lead a blues band into Grateful Dead and jam realms; he’s also well aware of the recognition the Grateful Dead had for American blues music.
“They didn’t just got to the well and take a drink, they drank deep from the well; they knew their stuff. Just like in Georgia we had Duane Allman, in England they had the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, in San Francisco they had The Grateful Dead,” said Ellis. “What they did was they sat around and listened to these old records. It wasn’t like they were studying it, but they were absorbing it and then they filtered it through there own experiences and made it into something that went along with the movement of the time in the late ’60s. I got on board a little later because of my age; I’m not as old as some of the fans. I got on board with ‘Europe ’72,’ when they were doing a lot of bluesy stuff. From there, when I got on board, I went backwards. Then I started going to see them, and then I got into playing blues, and realized that it’s all blues.”
Ellis’s love of blues music started as a kid infatuated with the British Invasion. As a teen he caught B.B. King and that got the ball rolling, resulting in a career that includes a run with Alligator Records and time spent with Buddy Guy and Albert Collins. The “Blues is Dead” project was born out of some live shows he’s played with members of Widespread Panic and the late Colonel Bruce Hampton, shows with set-lists that included blues tunes played by The Grateful Dead, among others. Expect that Wednesday.
“It’s just fun to stretch out on it. In the blues world and jazz world, there’s a lot of purists, and I’ve really never been a purist. When everybody else in the ’80s had a pompadour, I had long hair,” said Ellis. “I’m holding onto that Allman Brothers thing that I love so much. So we’re letting it all hang out with this.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]