Ontario, Canada
June 2003
Conversation With The Blues review WTCD002

Few would be silly enough to claim that the blues originated in Canada. Yet native or not, the blues have unquestionably become part of our musical landscape, so much so that many would be hard-pressed to remember a time when a blues band in Canada was as rare as an honest politician.

Michael Pickett remembers, though. He was there, back when the 'scene' consisted of exactly two bands ? the still-together Downchild, and the legendary Whiskey Howl, of which Michael was a founding member. Things have changed considerably in the intervening years, and today there's certainly no shortage of blues bands in Canada. But very few indeed play with as much passion nor invest their music with as much conviction as Michael Pickett.

"Conversation" is Michael's second outing as a leader, following up on 1998's "Blues Money." It's a stunning disc, a fully realized and thoroughly mature work of uncompromising integrity. Michael wrote or co-wrote all but a pair here, eschewing convention to follow his own muse with stellar results. He gets help from a core band that includes guitarist extraordinaire Shawn Kellerman (who's since launched a successful solo career in addition to joining The Sidemen) and long-time cohorts Steve Chadwick on bass and drummer Gary Craig. Of special note is the keyboard work of the late Bill McCauley, whose B3 is simply stunning throughout.

Michael's also called on a large number of friends to help pull this one off, but it's clearly his show and he allocates his resources wisely; there's never any clutter, and every note is carefully considered to contribute to the whole. He even makes use of a string quartet (yes, real strings!) on the title track, one of the best 'all alone at the end of the evening' songs you're ever likely to hear. Equally effective is his use of the doumbek, a hand-held drum, to accompany his solo guitar on "Cecil & Spadina," a paean to the intersection where the legendary Grossman's Tavern still stands. (It was there that Michael, along with countless Canadian blues artists, cut his teeth coming up). Elsewhere there are horns where horns are called for, piano where appropriate . . . in short, the right accents are invariably applied to maximum effect.

Until recently Michael was known almost exclusively as a harmonica player. And while harp-o-holics will find much to savour here, Michael, again, isn't about grandstanding; with a thick, meaty tone possessing the power of a freight train, his playing is an object lesson in taste and restraint. Of late, though, Michael's turned his attentions more and more toward his guitar playing and songwriting. Here he proves as adept on a fretboard (a hand-crafted resophonic courtesy of master luthier Joseph Yanuziello) as he is on the lickin' stick. He's also one of the best blues singers Canada has ever produced, with a slightly raspy voice that contains both the hard-earned wisdom that comes only with experience, and a blue-eyed soul that hints at immeasurable depths of passion, pain and pleasure.

But what really elevates this disc are Michael's compositions. From the earthy funk of "Big Train" to the slippery grease of "Junk Thang" (the disc's only instrumental), from the gospel groove of "When I Lay My Burden Down" to the brooding menace implicit in "Look Out At The Weather," Michael proves a master of every style he chooses to tackle.

"Conversation" is a nothing less than a landmark, a defining moment for Canadian blues. Michael's proven that the twelve-bar idiom isn't all used up, that there's much more to be done. And that there's room for a fierce, probing intelligence that can inform the music without sacrificing any of the visceral impact; in short, that one can think about and feel the blues at the same time.

This one's a masterpiece . . . miss it at your peril!

John Taylor


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