Blues Chips

Techno-dance junkie, speed-metal maniac, smooth-jazz fan -- whoever you are, listen up: Some rainy day the raging inequities of life are gonna come knocking and you will understand, at long last, just what the concept of deep melancholia really means. It doesn't matter if you're living the good life out of one of those luxe penthouse suites atop the Van Dyke on Lincoln Road or barely getting by on the mean streets. You can't run; you can't hide. Sooner or later everybody gets the blues.

The universality of this unfortunate fact is not lost on many musicians. They know that they will always be able to make a decent living hawking sad songs, moving from town to town like old-time revival preachers or flimflamming healers. As fate would have it, two such gentlemen will visit South Florida this week. Each believes he has the cure for what ails you.

Guitarists Tony "O" Melio and Tinsley Ellis have followed diverse paths to practice their particular brand of hoodoo. One prescribes pure, unadulterated, postwar Chicago blues -- the kind of stuff that can prove habit-forming for some listeners. The other mixes up a mean cocktail of blues and rock that can result in potent side effects: an embarrassing reflex action known as air-guitar playing, and periodic episodes of ringing ears.

While the distinction between the two may be subtle to the uninitiated, their back-to-back performances -- Melio plays on April 23 at Cheers in Fort Lauderdale, Ellis the following night at the Backroom in Delray Beach -- offer an opportunity to compare branches of the blues that, for cognoscenti, are as different as aromatherapy and chemotherapy. Of course, it would take an especially insightful psychologist to figure out why these fine fellows, both in their early forties and with many mutual musical heroes, chose their dissimilar specialties.

Melio has made a career of touring and recording with blues trailblazers such as Pinetop Perkins, Victoria Spivey, James Cotton, and Jimmy Rogers. He's had the pleasure of befriending and learning firsthand from Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, and Hubert Sumlin. "Oh man, I could write ten books," he says of his experiences. "It's been wonderful. I learned so much and I became what I am now because of meeting Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters at a young age."

In fact, Melio was in his midteens when those seminal bluesmen found him loitering near the stage door of clubs in his native New York City; each took young Tony under his wing. Since then he has remained fiercely loyal to the electrified Delta blues sound pioneered by Wolf, Waters, and others shortly after World War II, when Southern blacks migrated en masse to Chicago and other Northern cities.

Ellis, on the other hand, has fashioned his reputation on the sizzle and spark of an overdriven guitar style and a musical flair learned as much from Sixties and Seventies rock icons as from blues stalwarts like B.B. King. "The first time I ever heard slide guitar it was Brian Jones playing on 'Little Red Rooster,' off, I think, the second Stones album," recalls the former Hollywood, Florida, resident during a phone call from his home in Atlanta. "Then I went to shows down there in South Florida. A really memorable one was B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf. I'd seen B.B. King once before at a teen show and I really liked him a lot. But when I saw Howlin' Wolf, I saw the real thing, B.B. King being more polished and Howlin' Wolf being such a crude, rude dude. That was a really formative show for me. That was at the Hollywood Sportatorium in 1973."

Ellis subsequently attended blues concerts on a regular basis. And while he didn't score the private guitar lessons bestowed upon his awestruck New York counterpart, he made the most of his encounters. "I was the geek at every blues show in South Florida, until I left. And then I was the geek at every blues show in Atlanta upon arrival. Then I became the opening act. And, you know, it's been a long, hard climb to the middle." True, he's not a household name. But a quarter-century after that inspiring Howlin' Wolf performance, Ellis has nine albums under his belt -- four with his mid-Eighties Atlanta group the Heartfixers, released on Landslide Records, and five later solo discs on Chicago-based Alligator Records (that label also reissued the final two Heartfixers albums). And Ellis has toured the world several times.

His most recent album, last year's Fire It Up, features the same revved-up blues that has been practiced over the years by the likes of Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the Allman Brothers Band. Seeking to capture some of the spirit of those vaunted figures, Ellis employed venerable producer Tom Dowd (Allman Brothers, Derek and the Dominos) to oversee the sessions. The result is a blustery storm of trills and bent strings, gnawing power chords, and pained vocals that fit handily into the mold of jam rockers.

"Rock and roll is sort of my heritage, but blues is my love," the guitarist explains. "And I'm not feeling too comfortable with either tag, because blues really is guys like John Lee Hooker and rock and roll really probably is Van Halen. And I'm neither of those, so I'm somewhere in the middle."

There is no middle ground for Melio. Although he started recording albums as a sideman right around the time an underage Ellis was playing his first Broward keg party, he didn't step out as a solo artist until 1995. By that late date he was firmly committed to his roots. His solo debut, Top of the Blues, with guest performances by pianist Pinetop Perkins and long-time Muddy Waters drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (who tours with Melio and will perform with him at Cheers), is the epitome of old-style Chicago blues. Sparse, airy rhythms and clean, biting guitar tones dominate its sound. The album, credited to the Tony O Blues Band, seems more a product of 1965 than 1995, a time just before Jimi Hendrix worked his feedback-laden voodoo on guitar players everywhere. In this case keeping the flame of old-style blues alive is a matter of professional ethics.

"There's no more traditional blues around," Melio notes, speaking by phone from a tour stop in northern Florida. "That's all gone. People who were holdin' it together like Willie Dixon and people like that, they're all gone. There's very, very little traditional blues. That's why I gotta keep doin' what I'm doin' and keep my soul goin' out to the legends and the people who love serious blues. I'm not gonna change my style."

Musical styles are important to Ellis, too. He just likes to stir them up a little. "It's sort of like a mixed drink," he observes. "You put a little of the mixer in and the shot of whiskey or whatever. And you can make it stronger or weaker. It's really a blurred line. The idea is to hop back and forth across the line. That's what I try to do."

Mixing, hopping, and playing the blues -- it's a simple remedy, really. Admit it: You're feeling better already.

The Tony O Blues Band performs at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 23, at Cheers, 941 E Cypress Creek Rd, Fort Lauderdale; 954-771-6337. Admission is free. Tinsley Ellis plays at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, April 24, at the Backroom, 16 E Atlantic Ave, Delray Beach; 561-243-9110. Tickets cost $10.


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