Ellen McIlwaine8pm, SaturdayMay 16th '09St. James Hall3214 West 10th Avenue
at Trutch St. in Kitsilano
"She's a tough one to pigeon-hole: her music uses the blues as a spring-board, spanning reggae, funk, rock...mixing them in a steaming spicy melange. Being a wickedly sharp slide guitarist is only part of it." Winnipeg Free Press
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Ellen McIlwaine is a gutsy, spirited performer who plays and sings a fiery brand of blues like few other female blues singers. Why she's not more widely known is one of the mysteries of the record business, as she's been on the scene a long time. Adopted and raised by missionaries, McIlwaine spent her first 15 years in Japan. She began playing piano at five and began singing in the church choir. She began listening to U.S. Armed Forces Radio in junior high school, becoming enamored with singers like Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Professor Longhair. McIlwaine returned to the U.S. with her parents when she was 17 and attended King College in Bristol, Tenn. and DeKalb College in Atlanta. She left college after two years and began her professional performing career in Atlanta in 1966. Shortly after she began playing out professionally, folk singer Patrick Sky heard her and encouraged her to come to New York City. Sky's manager secured her some bookings at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, and there, she shared bills with Jimi Hendrix,John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf. Richie Havens and Randy California taught her a few things about slide guitar, and she took it from there. She moved back to Atlanta and formed her first and only group, Fear Itself.
With that group, she pioneered what was then a novel concept: she was both the guitar-slinging bandleader and the group's lead vocalist. A year later, the all-male backup group went with her to New York to record their self-titled debut album for Dot Records. McIlwaine's other recordings, which may be difficult to locate, include Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We The People (1973), both for Polydor. In 1975, she recorded The Real Ellen McIlwaine for a Canadian label, Kot'Ai Kot. Her output since then has been somewhat sporadic, but her performances are just as spirited. More recent recordings include Ellen McIlwaine (1978) for United Artists, Everybody Needs It (1982) for the Blind Pig label, and a 1988 release on Stony Plain, a Canadian label, Looking for Trouble. Fortunately, many of her old vinyl sides have been reissued on compact disc by Stony Plain. After many years in Connecticut, McIlwaine relocated to Toronto, Ontario in the late 1980s.