Monday, February 27, 2012

Any Womans Blues #19 – Ellen McIlwaine

Happy Monday! February is drawing to a close, so it’s time for another edition of Any Woman’s Blues, & as usual, we’ve got a great guitarist to discuss & listen to.

That guitarist is Ellen McIlwaine, a veteran professional whose playing, singing & songwriting deserve much more recognition than has come her way in a career spanning four decades & change. Ellen McIlwaine was an opening act for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf & other greats; her first professional recording dates to 1969, with the group Fear Itself, & she began issuing solo records with the 1972 Honky Tonk Angel on Polydor. McIlwaine has changed labels often, as she’s also put out labels on United Artists, Blind Pig, Stoney Plain, Tradition und Moderne & others.  Her most recent release, the 2007 Mystic Bridge on her own Ellen McIlwaine Music label, is a true adventure, as she teams with tabla player Cassius Khan, soprano saxaphonist Linsey Wellman & harmonium player Amika Kushwaha (the latter only on the last track, which features spoken word over music); otherwise, the album features four McIlwaine originals as well as covers of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River," John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Kingsnake” & Hendrix’ “May This Be Love.” Quite a set!

Ellen McIlwaine is particularly known as a slide player, & her technique & musicality with the slide are impeccable; her playing style is fiery but melodic, as the best slide work invariably is.  In addition—as suggested by the song line-up on Mystic Bridge
McIlwaine doesn’t simply use the slide to reproduce gutbucket blues. Her slide work is extremely versatile, ranging from a cover of Hendrix’ “Waterfall” to Middle Eastern music—as found in the second video below—& more. 

McIlwaine is a cosmopolitan person, which may in part explain her wide-ranging music tastes & interests. Although she was born in Nashville, Tennessee, she was raised in Japan, where her adoptive parents served as missionaries.  She has recorded for the German Tradition Und Moderne label, including the 2002 Spontaneous Combustion, which not only features more of her take on Middle Eastern sounds, but also includes a couple of duets with Taj Mahal; & she moved to Canada in the late 1980s, living first in Toronto & now in Alberta province.

As far as guitars go, McIlwaine favors Guilds both for acoustic & electric playing. I should also mention that her cds are all available on her website here. Remember: buying direct from the artist whenever possible is always best!

It was a bit of a challenge to find videos for this post. I like to stick with live video as much as possible because it’s ideal to be able to hear the performer without the mediation that can happen in a studio, & it’s also ideal to see she what she’s doing. Having said that, it seems that a high percentage of the live videos of McIlwaine don’t feature full performances. But I do think that these two videos, despite being cut off at the end, showcase her playing well.
Ellen McIlwaine is absolutely the real deal—enjoy!


  1. Interesting! I'd never heard of her before. That second piece sounds a lot like the work of Lisa Gerrard, especially in her years with Dead Can Dance. Cool stuff!

  2. Excellent stuff, John. She wouldn't have been out of place at the Page and Plant gig I went to, back in 1995. I love that middle eastern sound.

  3. Hi Roy & Martin

    Roy: I stumbled across her while researching this series. She's really quite good, tho her YT video output is a bit disappointing. There's a complete version of the Middle Eastern one on YT, but embedding is disabled for it. You can view it here

    Martin: So glad you liked it! Yes, it's really interesting & the way she does it, it sounds really natural on slide style guitar. As a mere mortal who plays slide guitar, I can tell you it's nowhere near as easy as she makes it seem!


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