Ellen McIlwaine was one of the most distinctive, uncategorizable figures of the 1970's music scene... Born in Nashville but raised abroad, McIlwaine settled in New York's later-1960's Greenwich Village folk-rock scene and was pals with Jimi Hendrix as he rose to fame. She dabbled in rock but gravitated towards more of a roots-blues sound, similar to what Bonnie Raitt was up to at the time, but wilder and decidedly goofier. McIlwaine yelped, yodeled and played an aggressively choppy style of slide guitar. Loud, exuberant and bursting with life and good humor, McIlwaine was irresistibly appealing to a certain cross-section of music fans (including yours truly...) It's hard to pigeonhole her work -- she's one of the best examples of the more experimental, inclusive aspects of early '70s pop, as well as one of the most enigmatic, striking figures in the history of female rock and blues singers. Here's a quick look at her work...
Ellen McIlwaine "Up From The Skies: The Polydor Years" (PolyGram Chronicles, 1998)
This CD combines two LPs she made for Polydor -- Honky Tonk Angel from 1972, and We The People, from '73... (Reviewed below.) A great introduction to her work...!!
Ellen McIlwaine "The Real/Everybody Needs It" (Stony Plain, 1995)
Thankfully, the digital age found room for Ellen McIlwaine's music, in this case an indie reissue of her truly fabulous and idiosyncratic album, The Real Ellen McIlwaine, paired up on a single CD with a 1982 album, Everybody Needs It, which sadly was not up par with her usual high standards... In fact, it was pretty terrible. Still, the stuff from '75 is hella fab, so this disc is worth tracking down.
Fear Itself "Fear Itself" (ABC-Dot, 1969)
Ellen McIlwaine "Honky Tonk Angel" (Polydor, 1972)
One of the all-time best albums from the eclectic, early-'70s roots-music scene. To the uninitiated, these recordings might be somewhat bewildering: who the hell was this yodeling madwoman with the funky vibe and the crazy steel guitar? Drawing on sources as diverse as Kitty Wells, Isaac Hayes, Smokey Robinson and Blind Faith, McIlwaine summons the spirit of a coffeehouse folkie dropping acid with Jimi Hendrix (which she probably did, since she was a pal of his...) while laying down some seriously funky, blues-drenched music. She was kind of an avant garde version of Bonnie Raitt, who was also coming into her own around the same time. But McIlwaine is way nuttier than Bonnie would ever dream of being. She's unrestrained and chaotic, completely willing to be either incredibly soulful, or incredibly goofy, as the spirit might take her. One thing's for sure, you'll never come across anyone else like her -- she's a one-of-a-kind kinda gal. Plus, there are a bunch of great, classic tunes on here, including the novelty classics "I Don't Want To Play" and "Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven (But Nobody Wants To Die)," as well as her genuinely spooky version of "Can't Find My Way Home." Worth tracking down!
Ellen McIlwaine "We The People" (Polydor, 1973)
Ellen McIlwaine "The Real Ellen McIlwaine" (United Artists/Kotai, 1975)
Although her Polydor albums are legendary, this may actually be her best record. McIlwaine's nutty, yelpy soul sister yodelin' finds its highest expression on this disc, with crazed, funky versions of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill," and exuberant originals like "Lazy Day" and "Thirty-Piece Band." Also noteworthy is her wrenching version of "Down So Low," which easily rivals the Tracy Nelson original. This is a spendid hippie funk album, but you really have to be on her wavelength to appreciate it. Fans of her earlier albums are strongly urged to track this one down... it's a real doozy.
Ellen McIlwaine "Ellen McIlwaine" (United Artists, 1978) (LP)
Ellen McIlwaine "Everybody Needs It" (1982)
This album was, sadly, not on par with her usual high standards... In fact, it was pretty terrible. A bland, slightly frantic rock record with production that's so generic, it's not even worth criticizing. You can skip this one.
Ellen McIlwaine "Looking For Trouble" (Stony Plain, 1987)
Her attempts to keep up with the times weren't always so successful... This catching-up-with-the-'80s album, with flat, bright, artificial-sounding rock-pop production sounds antiseptic and bland, with the lone highlight being a remake of her old classic, "All To You," which is mildly interesting, but that's mostly due to the power of the song itself. McIlwaine revisits a few of her other oldies, including "Can't Find My Way Home" (given a pop-reggae re-arrangement) but overall this one's a dud. Oh, well.
Ellen McIlwaine "Women In (e)motion Festival" (Tradition & Moderne, 1998)
A live recording from a German music festival, this proved to be her only album for the 1990s... Admittedly, McIlwaine sounds a little long in the tooth, but also amped up and committed to her performance. A heavy reggae vibe threads through the whole record, laced with her chunky, Cream-influenced guitar style. I don't really care for most of the songs, but her guitar work is really cool, and still pretty distinctive.
Ellen McIlwaine "Spontaneous Combustion" (Tradition & Moderne, 2001)
McIlwaine definitely gets her mojo back on this slick but lively album, which includes a bunch of clever, funky covers of well-known songs such as Al Green's "Take Me To The River," a reggaefied rendition of "Mockingbird," which follows the template of the Inez Foxx hit and is sung as a duet with blues-roots legend Taj Mahal(!) She also revisits her old classic, "Up From The Skies," and dabbles in some world-music stylings on a tune or two. A little too slickly produced for me, but infinitely better than her '80s rock records, and worth checking out if you're a longtime fan.
Ellen McIlwaine "Live At Yellow" (2002)
Ellen McIlwaine & Cassius Khan "Mystic Bridge" (Ellen Mcilwaine Music, 2007)
Hick Music Index