Articles Special Feature

Pickett is a major talent!

by Zoe Chilco

Toronto, Ontario, Canada
May 1998

PICKETT  Michael Pickett, "the best harmonica player in the city... in Canada... maybe the best in North America..." is about to release his first solo CD Blues Money June 4 at the Silver Dollar.  Long-time TBS member Zoe Chilco spoke with him recently about the new work.

Exciting!  That's what it is.  After 25 years of live clubs, recording projects with numerous other musicians or gigs, touring, writing, and playing, playing, playing, Michael Pickett is putting out his first solo CD, Blues Money, of all-original material - twelve songs of high energy, soulful, musical fun.  In fact, at this point in his life, the prime of life for a harp player, Pickett says he is now "serious about fun," and sure that others will catch the contagious spirit that's in his work.

He's pretty high these days, mastering the three to four months' worth of recording with the many high profile musicians included on the album, and preparing for the monster release party at the Silver Dollar on June 4.  Although he says the names are too numerous to list, they include luminaries such as Colin Linden, Molly Johnson, Doug Riley, Gord Myers, and Richard Bell to name a few.  "The mixes are great," says Pickett, and, really serious about fun, adds, "I feel so much satisfaction with it that I can take 20 years of rejections, if the record companies don't like it."

An unlikely scenario.  With his background and experience, this collection is not a flash-in-the-pan, or "I-wanna-do-it-too" project that companies are inundated with these days.  CD technology may be available to everyone, but years of listening and playing, touring with heavyweights like Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thornton, among others, and honing both musical and personal senses - all that is not just anybody's.  Anyone who has seen Pickett perform knows he's good; knows he puts his soul and guts into the riffs he pulls out of his harp.  Not for nothing is he called a "pillar of the blues community," with sets that are "tough, tight and exciting."

"Alive" might be another adjective to describe his sets.  It's a quality that is key to his performances.  "You're like an actor on stage," he says.  "It's about the moment.  The moment - on stage, 10:20pm, that tune, that phrase - that moment is paramount, and if you're not there totally then the performance is stilted, it's 'like reading lines'."  Pickett understands the electricity and energy that is created with the audience and says that the feel of Blues Money is a good live sound, even though it was recorded in the studio.

So how did this career get started?  I'd heard of Wooden Teeth, and what a good band that had been back in the early 70s.  It was a "musician's band', he says, because all the local musicians loved to come out and listen to it.  (In honour of that long-ago first sound, Pickett has named the Blues Money recording company, an indie release, as Wooden Teeth Records.)  But before all that, before he was performing, Pickett was growing up here in Toronto, listening to the greats - Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee at the Riverboat; James Cotton and other Chicago bands at the Coq d'Or or the Colonial in the 60s, or at the El Mocambo in the early 70s.  He listened and learned and played both harp and guitar (he plays guitar on one cut on Blues Money), but mostly he played harp and got really good, so good that Wired Magazine in San Fransciso wrote about him as a hot player.  He absorbed a lot and now it all comes out in the mix that is Pickett, who he is.

When asked what it is about the harmonica that appeals so much, why it "grabs at our souls," Pickett answered.  "Well, there is that wailing quality that people associate with it.  The harp is like a human voice."  But even though it is a lonely, wistful sound or reminiscent of a train whistle at night, he thinks there's more.  He likes it because it's a sound on its own.

Out of the original Chicago style it became a legitimate instrument - "forceful, raunchy, sexy" and was a new voice, separate and expressive.

Blues Money is blues songs, but not always traditional blues, and there's one that's not a blues tune at all; there are rockers, like the title track, a sort of "nasty and nice" kicker that he co-wrote with Doug [Romanow].  There are co-writes with Teddy Leonard of Fathead, and Richard Bell.  Then there's 'Walkin'', a song that Pickett wrote thinking it was about Mavis Staples, Martin Luther King, the whole civil rights movement, until playing it one night he suddenly realized it was about something totally different, something with a very personal meaning for him.

The meanings and the mix are hard to separate out of all the experiences and influences, but one thing is sure:  it's fun - "a hoot," says Pickett, and it's stuff he knows.  As for the work - the songwriting - the songs come out, he says, from a guitar lick, or the harp, but gradually building from one phrase, to a line, to a hook, growing up, as he put it, "out of the ground like potatoes."

Well the years have yielded no small potatoes.  Michael Pickett is a major talent and having seen him perform, I predict Blues Money will yield great, happenin' music.  And fun, of course, serious fun.


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