Ellen McIlwaine opened her show at The Door last night with hard-rock siren singing and overbearing electric guitar as if she were at the Capital Centre. She stared back at the surprised club crowd and said: "I know what you're expecting, you're expecting 1972, a long flowing dress and acoustic bottleneck guitar."
McIlwaine, once a virtuoso acoustic blues picker, has made a dubious switch to rock 'n' roll. Playing without a band, her blaring rhythm chording was far more primitive than her old slide work. Her new vocal style eliminated her old blues shadings and reinforced her grating qualities. She summed up her set when she dedicated a John Lee Hooker tune to Z.Z. Top.
The evening was redeemed by Chris Smither, one of America's most unjustly overlooked singer-songwriters and blues guitarists. Smither made his furious rush of guitar arpeggios, chords and lead notes seem a steady, relaxed flow. He transformed his limited baritone voice into a warm, dramatic asset. His own songs stood up well next to the Randy Newman and Bob Dylan compositions. Smither's "Don't It Drag On" perfectly captured the melancholy weariness of falling in love again. His "Love You Like a Man" was an uptempo come-on of grabby guitar and tomcat vocals.