Music is in Michael Burks' blood--both his father and grandfather played the blues and his grandmother was a powerful gospel singer. So no one thought much of it when his father put a guitar in the young boys hands at the age of two in their hometown of Camden, Arkansas (born July 30, 1957). But four years later at the tender age of six people began to take notice as he played his first juke joint show along with his older brother. "They called me 'little midget,'" Michael recalls, "because they couldn't believe I was just six years old." People were amazed after listening to him tear through some Freddie King instrumentals just as they were equally impressed with his performance at the Narrows Saloon in Navarre, located in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, more than 36 years later.
This was Michael's second appearance in the Twin Cities, (he was at Famous Dave's two month earlier on December 1, 2000). I happened to stop by that show because I had listened to Michael's previous CD, From The Inside Out (Vent Records 1997) and liked his playing and singing so much I wanted to see him live. Well let me tell you, I was not prepared for the amazing performance I saw that night and repeated at the Narrows Saloon. This was one of those all to frequent sub-zero nights we had been having lately but inside at the Narrows it was reaching the boiling point thanks to the blistering guitar attack of Michael Burks. Michael's guitar playing stings, slashes and attacks your senses from all directions. Drawing heavily on some of his major influences, Albert King, T. Bone Walker, Albert Collins, B.B. King and Freddie King as well as Hendrix, Michael Burks left many in the audience with their jaws dropping in amazement.
Now let me make an important distinction here, Michael Burks doesn't JUST know what notes to play on the guitar, he is not JUST a masterful technician of the six-string strat. He actually understands the true essence of the blues and plays with as much feeling and emotion as any of the masters who have come before him. He plays with a texture, a tone and an intensity that reaches out and grabs the listener by the gut, letting them know what the blues is really all about.
After Michael played his first club gig at the age of six, he became a voracious student of the blues guitar, not only learning from the countless records his dad brought home but as a young teenager actually learning from and playing with many of the blues and soul greats who came through town and played at the Burks' family juke joint. Michael fronted his own band there and backed up the likes of Johnnie Taylor, O.V. Wright, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton and other well known soul and blues artists traveling the chitlin circuit. He even toured with T. Bone Walker during the early 1970's when he was just 13 years old (playing at the Watts Music Festival in 1972). After working at a day job for over a decade, during which time Michael continued to refine his guitar playing and singing even playing guitar in a gospel group, the Clouds of Joy, he decided to seriously pursue a career in music. Shortly after forming his own band in 1994 he won the coveted Albert King Award (presented by the Blues Foundation in Memphis). That particular award was fitting since Michael draws heavily on Albert's guitar style even using the famous Gibson Flying-V guitar.
During this show at the Narrows Saloon Michael drew on some if his influences including B.B., Albert and Freddie King, a little Hendrix (a rendition of "Hey Joe" that had the audience riveted), some excellent original compositions and an occasional excursion into some outstanding Southern soul as well as a super display of Marvin Gaye's "Lets Get It On." He also had a "walk about" that ended up on top of the large U shaped bar to the surprise and delight of the patrons.
In addition to Michael's gifted "touch" on the guitar he also writes most of his material and sings with a gruff soul/blues voice that lets you know he has a natural affinity to the gospel and soul he was exposed to as a child. Michael Burks is one of "new breed" of blues performers touring today that will literally knock your socks off when you see him play. Remember the name, get a copy of his new CD (Make It Rain on Alligator 2001) and definitely go see him the next time he plays near you!
The Narrows Saloon, by the way, is a nice, intimate club on the west end of the Twin Cities owned by a dedicated and enthusiastic couple (Jim and Cindy) who are bringing some great local and national blues talent to their club. The Narrows Saloon is located at the junction of Hwy 19 and 15 near Lake Minnetonka (3380 Shoreline Dr., Navarre, Minnesota 952-471-3352). There is a large parking lot in the back of the small strip mall where they are located. There is no sign on the building yet, but you can see all the neon signs in the large window and inside is a large U shaped bar, a pool table, stage and good sound system. They even plan on opening a kitchen later this year. With blues 5 days a week this is definitely a new place to help you with your "blues fix" when you need it.
Some of the quotes used in this review are from the liner notes to Michael's new Alligator CD, Make It Rain (2001) by Cary Wolfson.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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