Guitar Mikey Out Of The Box Earwig CD4965
Liner Notes and Credits
The singular blues odyssey of Mike McMillan has taken him from his native Canada to Clarksdale, Mississippi, with extended residencies in Chicago and Boston nestled between. In 1985, it also gave him a distinctive stage moniker, one he retains to this day. “I was doing the legendary Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson tune, ‘Gangster Of Love,’” he explains. “There’s a line in the
song that goes, ‘The sheriff said, “Is you Guitar Watson?” in a very deep voice,’ and I had to find something that fit. So I just decided, ‘Okay, let’s try Guitar Mikey!’ I didn’t drop the ‘Guitar’; I just added a syllable to make it fit. Eventually people started calling me that, and I just surrendered.”
Since then, Guitar Mikey and the Real Thing have steadily gained renown for their distinctive high-energy sound. “I would describe it as hybrid blues, or blues-rock,” says Mikey. “I’m definitely a blues guitar player, I definitely write some blues, but not everything I do is strictly blues. Some of it’s got a rockier edge, some of it’s got a funkier edge.” Mikey’s ferocious axe (he’s fiery on slide as well as single-string leads) and impassioned vocals have never been captured more effectively on record than on this self produced collection, cut in Clarksdale with an impressive array of musical cohorts who include longtime keyboardist Mark Yacovone and three supple rhythm sections as well as guests Billy Gibson on harmonica and pianist David
“I think this album is very consistent, even though the styles change quite dramatically throughout the album,” he says. “The reason why there are so many songs on it is because there is no filler. I can’t say that I love one tune more than another. In general, I like them all. They’ve all got something that’s unique about them in some way.” The title of Out of the Box holds special significance. “When I started playing in my teens and I had my first blues band, they were saying, ‘Well, you’ve got to write your own material. You’ve got to do something new. You can’t just play Muddy Waters,’” explains Mikey. “Then when I started doing something new, they were saying, ‘Well, this isn’t really blues,’ because I was kind of playing out of the box. I wasn’t really restricting myself artistically. So it’s really just a commentary on sticking to
who you are, being true to yourself.”
That’s what Mikey does throughout this set, on the aggressive opener “Who Is She,” a relentless “It’s A Sin,” the luxuriously downbeat “The Bigger Fool,” a clever “When Leo Starts To Growlin’” and his writing collaborations with Doug Carter: “Freedom Road,” “Blues Head,” “Need $100,” and “Livin’ In the Big Time.” “Doug and I wrote ‘Blues Attack’ way back in the ‘90s together, because he co-wrote a bunch of stuff for a record I did with A&M,” says Mikey.
“He started out as a bass player with King Biscuit Boy in the late ‘60s.” Though most of the set is unabashedly electric, there’s an acoustic departure, “It’s Goin’ Down,” that illustrates the guitarist’s uncommon versatility.
Out of the Box found its way to Earwig Records—better known for its resolutely traditional slant on the genre than the kind of sizzling contemporary blues that Mikey proudly dishes up, through Earwig founder Michael Frank, who spends a fair amount of time in Clarksdale himself when he isn’t home in Chicago. “The first time I actually met Michael, even though I’d seen him around and been in the same circles as he was, was the night that he sat in with Billy Gibson and me,”
says Mikey. “I guess it’s a couple years ago now. We just kind of kept in contact, and I’ve basically been telling him about this album I’ve been working on. Eventually it came to fruition.”
“Mike is a guitarist on the move, destined to be in the next wave of killer guitarists on the global stage,” says Frank. “He and his band are The Real Thing, committed and driven to make their mark, with a fresh take on the blues. Earwig is proud to be part of that next wave.”
Mike McMillan got started on his blues odyssey at a very early age in Hamilton, Ontario. “I started playing slide guitar and listening to Muddy Waters records when I was about 10,” he says. “My first influence was Johnny Winter, because at that time you could barely find a Muddy Waters record in the record store. The first record I bought when I was eight years old was Still Alive and Well by Johnny Winter.” His folks bought the 11-year-old lad a ticket to a Waters show, but when the performance was over he was nowhere to be found. “They couldn’t find me after the concert because I was backstage hanging out with Muddy Waters!” Mikey laughs.
Mikey followed in his heroes’ footsteps by forming his first group, the Young Canadian Blues Band, in 1976. There was a brief stint with a rock band, but after that young McMillan dedicated himself to his favorite idiom. “I was always into the blues,” says Mikey, who soon realized that playing hot guitar wasn’t enough. Launching his own Steel City Blues band in 1980, he’d also supply his own vocals. “How I ended up starting to sing was the fact that I couldn’t find anybody to sing, because nobody really wanted to do blues. So I thought, ‘Okay, well, I’ve just got to do it myself!’” he says. “We entered this competition and we got first place. I think there were about 50 bands in the competition. And I just kept going from there.”
A thorough education in blues history was his for the asking once Mikey hooked up with harpist Richard Newell, better known as King Biscuit Boy, in 1983. “The first time I ever met him, he was jamming backstage with Long John Baldry at a festival that I was playing at. And I guess
he’d heard about me, and he approached me and started talking to me. I was only 16 at the time,” says Mikey. “I always remember going into his record vault, which was an entire bedroom that was just shelves of records, all categorized by period and artists.” Newell guested with Steel City for a time, and when the harpist released his Mouth of Steel album, they toured as his band.
The first edition of Guitar Mikey and the Real Thing coalesced in 1985. They issued their self-titled 1988 debut album on Mikey’s own Chesterfield label. “It was sort of a Chess Records reference,” says the guitarist of the label’s name. “I realized we needed to have something to sell
from the stage. We had a bunch of original songs, so we so we went in and cut them. Things were really looking up in 1990 when the band signed a pact with Spy/A&M and released their first Canadian major label release, Caught Between the Squeeze. But having his CD on a big label wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “It just turned into a very expensive coaster,” says Mikey with a big smile. “I just got lost in the shuffle.” Mikey walked away from his seven-year deal. “I’m far better off with a label like Earwig than I am with a major like A&M,” he says.
The allure of the Windy City ultimately proved impossible to resist, and Mikey moved there in 1997. “The objective was for me to actually work in Chicago and really pursue music,” he says. “I was sitting in a lot with Charlie Love at Kingston Mines on a regular basis. And we used
to also play a lot with Nellie Travis. I would always sit in with all the top guys that would play there, whether it was Carl Weathersby or Kenny Neal or Billy Branch.” After four years, the guitarist relocated again, this time to New England. But there was one more move in his future. After visiting the area, he pulled up stakes and settled in Clarksdale in 2006.
“We came to Clarksdale as tourists, and we just fell in love with the way of life and the pace,” he says. “We just thought, ‘You know, this is really the way to live.’ It was the music that brought us here, but it was really the people that made us want to move here.” The town’s seminal blues
history was a major factor in his relocation. “I would never have thought 10 years ago that I’d ever live in the South,” he says. “Now it’s home. And it’s where I want to stay.”
In 2008, Mikey released a live CD, Jam Zero, on his own 61 label that was recorded at the famous Ground Zero in Clarksdale. But Out of the Box signals a breakout for Guitar Mikey and the Real Thing on a far more prominent level than ever before. “I really think this has got something to it,” he says. “I think there’s a fresh, unique perspective on the music that I love on
– BILL DAHL
Produced by GUITAR MIKEY
Mixed by MARK WILLIAMS and GUITAR MIKEY at EAST OAK MIXING, Charlotte, NC
Mastered by DAVE HARRIS at STUDIO B MASTERING, Charlotte, NC
Photography by DANNY PARIS
Design and digital composite by AL BRANDTNER
I would like to extend a special THANK YOU to all friends and fans for your loyal support, Betsie Brown (Blind Raccoon), Doug Carter, Michael Frank (Earwig Music Company), Fuchs Audio Technology, Bob Margolin (courtesy of VizzTone Records), Paul Pearson & Delta Muffler, May Peterson, Gerhard Pramor, Steve Sasso, Kaylan Smith, Roger Stolle, Ian Thomas, Emerson Torrey (Satellite Studios), LaBrisca Triblett, Trickbag, James Trussart Guitars, Gary & Carol Vincent and especially Pamela McMillan, your support made this album possible. ~
Dedicated to the memory of Richard Newell
a.k.a. King Biscuit Boy - My Mentor