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Michael Burks – Show Of Strength

Alligator Records

12 tracks; 62.04 minutes

The loss of Michael Burks in May was felt right across the blues world. Not only was he playing at the peak of his powers but he was the very definition of the ‘gentle giant’ – monster guitarist on stage, friendly, quiet and thoughtful off stage. This last CD had been recorded just before Michael’s untimely death and now acts as a final chapter in his recorded output, a fourth CD for Alligator and possibly his best.

As on the previous CDs Michael co-produced the CD with label boss Bruce Iglauer. The band is his regular road band: Chuck ‘Popcorn’ Louden on drums, Terrence Grayson on bass and Wayne Sharp on keys, all three contributing background vocals. Scott Dirks plays harp on one track and Roosevelt ‘Mad Hatter’ Purifoy plays keys on three tracks.

The CD makes a spectacular start with the catchy “I Can Always Count On You”. This is not an original tune (written by two members of Texas band Big Mouth) but all the hallmarks of classic MB are here; Michael’s soaring guitar, Wayne’s B3 providing a warm blanket and the rhythm section doing exactly what is needed. Indeed, recent recruit Terrence Grayson’s supple bass is a key ingredient to the track. Lyrically the track can be summed up by what follows the title – “…to let me down”. After just a couple of plays this is now one of my favorite MB tracks!

“Take A Chance On Me Baby” is an original ballad and “Storm Warning”, an up-tempo rocker, comes from Jon Tiven and Jimmy Vivino. 60’s Miami soul men Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke wrote “Can You Read Between The Lines?” and Rick Estrin suggested it to Michael; Rick must have seen that the song would suit Michael’s soulful style beautifully. After that we obviously need some darker stuff and Michael’s own “Cross Eyed Woman” fits the bill perfectly, Michael singing the ‘evil woman’ lyrics over his guitar fills with Wayne’s organ coming across like vintage Deep Purple. “Little Juke Joint” pays homage to Michael’s apprenticeship in the family blues club. The classic blues shuffle is enhanced by Scott Dirk’s harp and Wayne’s piano which support Michael’s tough but fluent guitar throughout.

One of the outstanding covers for me is “24 Hour Blues”, best known from Bobby Bland’s version but Michael makes it his own with a superb rendition. This is one of those slow blues with a tune and lyrics that define the blues – the loneliness, the suffocating sorrow of the narrator who has lost his love, balanced with Michael’s emotive playing and the band’s perfect accompaniment make this a standout cut. “Valley Of Tears”, a song from Chris “Hambone” Cameron, keyboard player with, amongst others, Mississippi Heat follows and is another excellent upbeat cut.

Michael had a particular affinity with slow blues and the longest track on the CD is “Since I Been Loving You” which is not the Zeppelin song but has some common DNA! The extra length allows Michael to really wring every last ounce of emotion from his guitar. “I Want To Get You Back” is a Gary Nicholson/Tom Hambridge tune and is one of the rockier tracks on the album. The ‘get you back’ is not regaining a lost love but gaining revenge and Michael’s guitar sounds sufficiently aggressive to believe him! A complete change of style follows with Michael playing a guitar borrowed from Dave Specter to produce a T-Bone Walker effect on his own shuffle “What Does It Take To Please You?” with Wayne Sharp’s piano adding some boogie feel to the track.

Last but not least is a wonderful take on Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home”. Perhaps it is hearing this in the knowledge that Michael has left us but his world weary vocals and the sad lyrics bring a chill to the spine: “I tried and I fell and I’m tired and weary. Everything I did was wrong and I feel like going home. Lord I tried to see it through but it was too much for me. And now I’m coming home to you, I feel like going home.” While I am sure that Michael had no idea that his life was about to be cut short the effect of this song and this performance on all of us who loved Michael and his music is amazingly powerful. It is a perfect closer to a great CD and a final chance to hear that soaring guitar one more time.

Now that Michael has passed all that we can hope is that somewhere in the archives there are live recordings that can be issued. As good as Michael was on record, his natural habitat was the stage. Special request: if there is a recording of Michael’s version of “I’ll Play The Blues For You” from the 2011 Blues Cruise, please put it on a live CD!

In the meantime fans of Michael will love this CD and to anyone who has not yet discovered him, this is a great place to start. In my opinion this is definitely one of the best CDs of 2012 and definitely the best of a very strong discography.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music.

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