Blues On Stage
Conversation With The Blues
Having been a fixture on Toronto's music scene for some 30 years now, Michael Pickett's pretty well seen and done it all. So one might reasonably expect him to sound a little jaded, a bit world-weary, no? Well reason be damned, 'cause Michael sings and plays with a passion belying the years. He's got the enthusiasm of a youngster just discovering blues, albeit tempered with a maturity that makes this, his second disc, a work solidly in the "adult" class. What strikes me most is the disc's eclecticism. Ten of the twelve tunes are Pickett originals, and he's all over the map. Material ranges from funky workouts with full band (horns, B3, backup singers) to a stripped-down number featuring Michael on acoustic guitar with, of all things, a doumbek (a hand-held drum) for accompaniment. In lesser hands, such variety might come across as unfocussed; Michael, though, holds it all together with the strength of his artistic vision. It works because it all comes from the soul of a man deeply committed to his music.
Michael's made his reputation as a harp player, and acquits himself admirably here. Yeah, he's got both tone and chops. Best of all, though, he's got taste. He doesn't just blow - he communicates. He also contributes some very tasteful resophonic guitar. And he's blessed with a naturally sweet voice (think blue-eyed soul), flavored with just the right amount of grit to add the requisite gravity to every phrase.
The band - guitarist Shawn Kellerman , bassist Steve Chadwick , and Gary Craig on drums - is augmented by an extensive guest list that reads like a veritable who's who of Toronto's blues scene . . . and some that aren't usually associated with blues. (A string quartet?!?). Michael allocates resources wisely, though, so there's no clutter. Despite stellar performances by all concerned, it's the songs that come first. And what songs they are! Big Train positively oozes funk. There's a relaxed front-porch feel to The River , while Junk Thang lets Michael stretch out on harp. The irresistible gospel groove of When I Lay My Burden Down will take you straight to church, and the title track is one of the best all-alone-at-the-end-of-the-night tunes I've ever heard. (The strings work!). Each has a hook that makes 'em stand out from the usual same-old-same-old. Michael even puts his personal stamp on the lone chestnut, Memphis Slim's Mother Earth , making it thoroughly his own in the process.
If you're adventurous enough to step outside the 12-bar boundaries, by all means eavesdrop on Michael's Conversation With The Blues . It's a conversation well worth (over)hearing.
John H. Taylor
© 2006 Michael Pickett