We’re still reeling from the sudden death two days ago of the great Michael “Iron Man” Burks. He was on his way home to Little Rock after a European tour when he collapsed and died. Michael had just finished recording a new album, set for late July release. This was the fourth album we had produced together, and with each one, I got to know him better. I learned of his intense work ethic, his pride in his music, his honesty and solidity, the gentleness under his sometimes gruff exterior, his loyalty to his friends, and his immense devotion to his family —his wife Bobbie, his daughter Brittney and his two young grandchildren. I had signed Michael Burks the musician because his blues moved me. But over the years, it was Michael Burks the man whom I grew to love and respect. I was very proud that he called me not only his co-producer and label chief, but also his friend. He left a huge hole in our blues community and also in my heart.
This is what I had written before I got the news (I can’t figure out how to make a smooth transition and I’ve given up trying.) —
Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials’ live performances and records have earned them the love of the entire blues world; no one in the blues creates more contagious fun and puts more pure, visceral energy into their music. We’ve just finished their 8th Alligator album, Jump Start, and Ed again invited me on board as co-producer. We had about ten rehearsals in the funky Alligator warehouse, and then cut for three hectic days and nights at Joyride Studio in Chicago. Ed and the band–guitarist Michael Garrett, Ed’s brother James “Pookie” Young on bass and drummer Kelly Littleton–don’t like to do too many takes of a song; it kills their spontaneous spirit. So we rehearse the basic arrangements and then “go for it” in the studio, trying to nail each tune in no more than a couple of takes. We always record more songs than we need; this time we cut 21 songs and chose 14 for the final album. There is an amazing chemistry in this band, and there should be; Ed and Pookie have been playing together since Ed was 12 and Pookie was 10. Mike and Kelly joined a mere 24(!) years ago. I can’t think of any blues band (or perhaps any band) that has been together with the same lineup for nearly this long. You can feel their deep friendship in every note. For Jump Start, Ed had two goals–to experiment with some new grooves and rhythms, and to present a few songs that show his more serious and subtle side. Of course he was always going to come to a new record with a batch of the raw shuffles and driving boogies that the band is famous for. Ed again paid tribute to his uncle and mentor, J.B Hutto, this time with a searing rendition of J.B.’s If You Change Your Mind. Every other song on the album is a new original, ranging from wild slide workouts to intense slow blues. Jump Start will be released in early June, just in time for Ed’s appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival.
Then, in early July, we’ll bring you the second album from California’s Rick Estrin & The Nightcats. We released their Alligator debut, Twisted, back in 2009. Since then, this amazingly creative band has written a slew of fresh, instantly memorable songs. Of course the spotlight is on Rick’s wry, streetwise lyrics, hip vocals and brilliant harmonica work. But his longtime cohorts, drummer/vocalist J. Hansen and bassman/ keyboard wiz Lorenzo Farrell are also featured, including their first track showcasing Lorenzo’s hard-grooving organ playing. And of course, the otherworldly guitar work of Kid Andersen is everywhere, slicing and dicing blues and rock solos, and stepping out on an epic instrumental evoking alien spaghetti westerns and surfing mariachis. The band does everything right on this album, but in their uniquely twisted fashion, so we named it One Wrong Turn (which is also the name of one of the best songs on the album.)
Finally, I want to mention Black Eye Galaxy, the newly-released album from one of our few artists whose music I wouldn’t call blues, though it’s sure feels like blues. New Orleans’ Anders Osborne creates some of the most emotional, wrenching, yet sometimes lyrical roots rock. Black Eye Galaxy, is an intensely moving, uplifting statement from a man who emerged from the hell of drug addiction into a brighter, more hopeful life.
More next time,