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Blues Spectrum

Michael Pickett: Inspired to find his soul in the harmonica

by Art Simas

I t was the dynamics of watching Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on TV one evening that turned a teenager's focus in life upside down.

In the early 1960s, Michael Pickett heard the laments of Mr. Terry's harp, accompanied by the vocals and sweet pickings of Mr. McGhee on guitar and things were never the same. Pickett had to find out more about how the soul of a man emerged from blowing air into a tin can filled with holes. How did he do it?

So at 15, he began his quest to find that source of inspiration and began playing harmonica.

"I always loved music," Pickett said, "and I was into anything that was moving."

He's stayed with his pasison for more than 30 years as a professional. Today, the award-winning Pickett has delivered his own music with a combination of technical depth, cerebral sophistication and personal pride. At 50 and "just getting by," Pickett has found his niche in the outskirts of Toronto, a city that soaks in musicians' hopes and dreams and churns them out for public consumption in the dozens of shivering smoky bars and night clubs.

He drew attention in his early bands such as Whiskey Howl and Wooden Teeth of the 1970s and '80s with a take-no-prisoners attitude when he was behind the microphone. People in Toronto weren't ready for the rootsy, funky and sometimes dirty blues that Pickett loved. But they got used to him.

"When I'm playing, I just let it go," Pickett said of his emotive style. Just listen to his latest CD, 'Conversation With The blues,' and listeners will know that Pickett's blues are all his own, which is so important in separating very good musicians from the usual bar bands that play for the door and a cheeseburger.'

In 'Conversation With The Blues," which earned him his second JUNO nomination and won the Canadian Indie Music Award for Blues Album of the Year, Pickett mixes 10 of his own blues, R&B, jazz, Delta, and gospel. A ballad and the reliable chestnut, "Mother Earth," was recorded live in the studio and given the big band treatment with backup singers, horns, and three-minute Pickett harp solo.

His first JUNO nomination was for his 1998 debut CD, 'Blues Money,' an all-originals recording.

Integrity is a very important factor in Pickett's music. It's got to move him to make it on to the bandstand and, eventually, on to a CD. And with that, the music has to say something.

"I don't think of myself as a lyricist," Pickett said. "Songwriting is a tough gig. But mostly it comes into my head and I'll try to work with it noodling on guitar... Sometimes it's a process. At other times I could be working songs for four or five months.

"I go where the songs are going," he said. "I'm not pigeonholed into one particular style of blues music. A lot of songs on 'Conversation With The Blues' are not what I heard originally. There are songs that I'm thinking ought to sound like Mississippi John Hurt and they end up sounding like Jimi Hendrix. But that's OK."

In addition to holding down The Michael Pickett Band, which was formed in 1981, Pickett performs as a solo acoustic artist on vocals, resophonic guitar and rack harmonica. When he is in this vein, the mood often evokes memories of his musical mentors such as Jimmy Reed, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Taj Mahal or James Cotton.

Last year at the Maple Blues Awards in Toronto, Pickett and Carlos del Junco shared the "Harmonica Player of the Year" award.

Pickett has performed at the International Beaches Jazz Festival; the Du Maurier Downtown Jazz Festival and the Great Canadian Blues Festival, all in Toronto; the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival in Fredericton, New Brunswick; the Deer Lakes Blues Festival in British Columbia; the Southside Shuffle Blues Festival in Port Credit, Ontario, and many others.

It won't be too long before blues festivals in the United States start booking this guy regularly. Watch for his name because you'll certainly remember his shows.

 

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