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CD REVIEW -- Michael Burks

Michael “Iron Man” Burks

Show Of Strength

Alligator Records

Michael Burks

by Liz Mandeville

“It’s almost impossible to believe that this will be the last album from Michael Burks, the Iron Man of the blues. The final mixes had just been completed while he was on a European tour, and they were waiting for him at his home. He never got a chance to hear them; this gentle giant died suddenly of heart failure on May 6, 2012, at the age of 54.”  --- Bruce Iglauer, President Alligator Records

In an era where musicians are encouraged to think of themselves as a commodity, to market their music like soap, it’s easy to lose the thing that made you a musician in the first place: your humanity.  Although he was a business man with an “Iron” work ethic, there was more to Michael Burks than pursuit of business goals, or guitar-god status. On the contrary, it was the man behind the guitar who epitomized “blues family values” that made him so beloved by his fans. His legendary cook-outs at the yearly King Biscuit Festival in Helena, AK, his commitment to his band and his family, along with his ability to connect with people on a deeply personal level all served to enhance his music and reputation. He inspired devotion in people!

Vickie Darnell was one of those people. She and her husband Jeff had been committed fans and friends of Michael Burks for years, talking about him to anyone who’d listen, spreading his name and fame -- even going so far as to drive from South Bend, IN  to Helena to support Michael any way they could, including being unpaid roadies!

So it was with relish that I stood backstage and watched him enthrall the lazing crowd by the levee at the King Biscuit Fest last October, proving every positive thing anybody had ever said of him. Remembering Michael’s completely satisfying set, his comfort on stage and ability to touch everyone in the audience, I thought: “Will he be able to translate that great live feel to a cold piece of plastic?”

When Show of Strength arrived in the mail, I hurried to the disc player and loaded it up, impatient to hear the fourth and, sadly, final recording from a seasoned road dog and a real bluesman who’d been hovering on the brink of “making it.” When the first perfectly crafted guitar licks came roaring out of the stereo speakers, thick with BBQ sauce, dripping with soul, I had one thought: “It can’t get any better than this.” And then he started to sing.

Michael Burk’s guitar tone is a big, clean, wah with just a touch of distortion to make it gritty. He is the other side of the Voodoo Chile, not the rock side that Stevie Ray captured and made his own, but the blue wail of tightly executed, perfectly selected notes packed with feeling. Not a shredder, not a speed demon, Michael makes every choice note count and the result sounds effortless. The same can be said of his magnificent voice, a caress of blue velvet, stuffed with truth and delivered with sincerity.

Twelve fine songs on Show of Strength, each with its own distinct groove, fit together like a puzzle to reveal a bigger picture of a man and his music. “Count On You” kicks off the CD with power and grace, revealing a band as tight and disciplined as a military unit. It’s the weary lament of a man who sings “I can always count on you to let me down.”  It’s a standard blues theme in a fresh setting with the guitar adding a response to Michael’s impassioned vocal call. “Take a Chance On Me, Baby” is a lovely soul ballad reminiscent of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s classic “I Want to Ta Ta You Baby,” that could have easily been covered by Etta James or Solomon Burke had either of them lived to hear it. So far, this is my favorite track on a disc that continues to envelope my heart. “Storm Warning” steps up the tempo and urgency, telling the heart break story in terms of gulf storms and the preparations needed to weather them.

I really like the group participation in “Can You Read Between the Lines” in which the band helps count off the telltale signs of a woman who’s getting ready to cheat. The band is egging Michael on, telling it all, like Louis Jordan’s band does on his seminal “Brother Beware.” Burks is pretty much right on the money with each of his  “things to watch out for” at the end of the love. This one should get the attention of all the men in the house!

“Cross Eyed Woman” has a heavy rock groove making me think of Blind Faith, Hendrix and the Allman Brothers -- although it doesn’t sound like any one of those groups, they have certainly been an influence. The dark and humid atmosphere is supported by Wayne Sharp’s wide cushion of organ, the bombastic drumming of Chuck Loudon and the slide attack employed by Michael for this track.

Chicago harp traditionalist, Scott Dirks, moans and wails on “Little Juke Joint,” and, coupled with Wayne Sharp’s honky-tonk piano styling, they add a new texture to the song. If other tracks on the disc flirt with classic rock, this track anchors it securely in the blues, a la Albert King’s “Annie Mae’s Café.”

“Little Juke Joint,” is one of the five songs on Show Of Strength written by Burks and his otherwise uncredited writing partner, the ubiquitous Sumner. The thing I love about Michael’s song writing is how atmospheric he is. His is not the narrative story telling of Chuck Berry or the moodiness of John Lee Hooker, yet these elements are there. Rather it is a very visual quality to what he’s saying that puts you in the heart of the story being told, like sitting inside a painting.

“24 Hour Blues” is slow minor blues at its finest, complete with crying guitar and fat organ patches. Constant throughout the whole package, Chuck “Popcorn” Loudon’s steady back-beat resounds like a heart beating, the one constant in life. This same feeling is brought to the next track “Valley of Tears”; if it’s possible that a guitar can out-cry a human, it happens here on this tune. I didn’t think it could get even more deeply slow blues than the previous two cuts but it does on “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Without being maudlin, this man is singing some very troubled music from a wounded soul; one wonders when he sings “I Want to Get You Back” if he means he wants to re-unite or get even. His voice says one thing but his guitar is definitely upset and looking for trouble!

“What Does It Take to Please You” is my favorite kind of blues groove, the swinging, Texas Blues of T-Bone and Gatemouth with the big masculine vocal of vintage Bobby “Blue” Bland. The drums are subtly different with the un-damped snare sound, made popular by Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, plying a double shuffle right in the pocket. Michael’s guitar sound is also more vintage, less produced. This being his own composition provides further insight into his personal influences as well.

The album wraps with a Gospel inflected, anthem called “Feel Like Going Home.” This song calls to mind the late Solomon Burke.  It’s further enhanced by the addition of Chicagoan Roosevelt Purifoy whose gospel piano part ushers this tune into the Church like a deacon on Sunday morning.

I sit at the end of this disc, the last powerful chords still echoing in my thoughts like rumbling thunder, considering the circumstances of Michael Burk’s life and death as written in the liner notes by his co-producer, friend and business partner, Bruce Iglauer.  He describes Michael’s path in the blues, a not unfamiliar story of struggle, long hours spent driving far from home, playing many low paying gigs. Michael, without drivers or roadies, would load his own gear, cheerfully entertain to the last note and then break it down, sleep a few hours if he was lucky, get up and do it all over again.

Michael Burks’ dream of true success was constantly just over that next hill. This was supposed to be the CD that brought Michael to, as Bruce says, “…what passes for stardom in the blues world.” The tragedy is Michael never even got to hear the final mixes, never got to be that star, despite having all the right stuff.  It’s no surprise that this album speaks of betrayal, heartache and pain; it’s a blues album after all. What I hear upon repeat listens is his wisdom, resignation and a heavy world weariness that would crush any person. His is not a mean spirit, he gave his all and in this unfair world where people of questionable talent become household names and millionaires, where mediocrity is the norm, Michael Burks left us with a precious, perfectly cut jewel. When you feel that life has let you down, that your dreams have been snatched and your efforts have been in vain, put this disc in your music machine and let the Iron Man soothe you one last time.

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Liz Mandeville CD
Liz Mandeville's new CD Clarksdale features 11 originals with Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith, Eddie Shaw & Nick Moss. Buy now on cdbaby
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