A couple of ways to size up last night's performance by renowned "blues" guitarist and singer, partnered up with tabla player, Cassius Khan. Black (she wore black) and white and sped all over. A blisteringly hot night of Delta blues - Nile Delta to be more specific. As the emcee observed in his halting but informative introduction, Ellen McIlwaine is a legend. But no monument. Monuments don't spend their time innovating and scouring the wide world of music for new sounds to explore and master. Perhaps much of this can be traced back to her early childhood. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee, adopted by Southern Presbyterian missionaries and moved with them to Japan . During the 15 years she lived there, she attended school at the Canadian Academy in Kobe, played rock 'n' roll piano New Orleans style at age five and tantalized her brain with Japanese folk and classical music and Country and European classical music over the U.S. Armed Forces Radio. Back in the U.S.A. in 1963, she bought her first guitar, ingested the sounds of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland and James Brown. And, starting off in a club in Atlanta, began a lifetime of gigging with stellar talents. Off to New York City where she bought an acoustic steel string previously driven by Mississippi John Hurt and Richie Havens (whose distinctive strum you can find echoes of in McIlwaine's technique). There she worked up a signature style of running bass lines against propulsive rhythms and singing the lead guitar lines. Her right hand hovers over the strings like an electric bass player, her fingers plucking out patterned bass lines and either fanning out flamenco-style or bunching together to stroke, both up and down, syncopated chord chunks. Her voice is a flexible instrument, effortlessly handling a diverse range of vocal colourizations from gritty blues shouter to the acrobatic ululations of Middle Eastern and Indian singing. (Last night she had some throat problems and used an asthma puffer to unlock her larynx. "Too many nights playing blues in bars where the air was blue," she explained.)
She brought all her wealth of chops, experience and friendly crowd engagement with her which she unleashed to the delight of a thrilled audience filliing the Commons Room to overflow. Her perched on a stool (she's a large woman who has suffered from a painful arthritc condition that has resulted in a pair of hip replacements) and tabla phenom, the charming and ebullient Cassius Khan, seated cross-legged on a low platform across from her, the duo launched into a pulsing bluesy version of Al Green's Take Me To The River. From the outset it was obvious that the mix of her style of playing and the pip-pip-pip pinging of Khan's tabla clicked. As the set progressed, McIlwaine steered the musical form closer and closer to an exciting combination of Middle Eastern and Indian influences - much of this achieved on her part by various open tunings of which she quipped, "You won't find in the Mel Bay Book on guitar tunings." More than a few moments of musical mischief comically bubbled up over the space of the evening. At one point, Khan tapped out the PinK Panther theme. But the strangest and laugh-out-loud musical moment occurred when the duo perfomed Jimi Hendrix's melodically odd May This Be Love. Whenever the lyrics came to "like a waterfall" McIlwaine played descending lines as off-key as any beginner. Initially the "bad notes" her slide coaxed out took the audience aback. Then, when she crisply played the piece's complex middle and chugging blues segment, the audience thought she'd recovered her balance. Only to, when she returned to wobbling down the waterfall in the same fashion as before, realize how playful she (and the composition) could be. Mid-song, she placed a small device emitting an intense blue light over the guitar's bridge and suddenly, the sound erupted like Hendrix was in the house. Sometime into her Hendrix-esque slide solo, she slipped into a reprise of Hendrix 's Woodstock rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Both funny and artful.
Twice in the evening, Cassius Khan was given his moments to shine. He gave the rapt audience a master class in tabla, blistering out inhumanly fast , complex and crowd-dazzling phrases which he demonstrated orally, before beating them out with his hands. If you think a hummingbird's wings flutter fast, that bird ain't even in the same ballpark as the lickety-split speed of Khan's tongue and hands.
Some of the swift verbal moments. Announcing a set break, McIlwaine told the crowd she'd be out in the lobby "signing bad cheques" for fans. Another: "We're in the Middle Ea-eest India now". The Calgary-based star on finding a tabla player: " I went looking for a tabla player and naturally turned to Edmonton." Cassius Khan is an Edmontonian so awesomely skilled on the instrument and versatile that he could play "slide tabla" according to McIlwaine. (Passing note. Khan will be performing soon with the Indian guitar giant, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.) On first perfomng as a very young performer for one of her heroes, John Lee Hooker. "I did one of your songs. What did you think? And John Lee replied, "Which one was it?""
A crowd pleasing night. If you want to vicariously enjoy this evening, check out Ellen McIlwaine's current CD, Mystic Bridge with Cassius Khan. Much of the evening's set list was chosen from that album. So fine. So find.