Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Iron Man Cometh: Guitarist Michael Burks

I remember the first time I met Michael Burks. It was several years ago and he was playing a concert at the Emmaus Fire Company No. 1 social hall in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.
Sometime between sets, we started a conversation and he bought me a beer! I remember being amazed that someone with such prodigious skill on guitar—who was that good at anything—could be so humble.
Since then, I have followed his career over three albums (I’ve never heard his first album, the self-produced From the Inside Out, released in the late 1990’s) and concerts in Whitehall, Pennsylvania; Chicago; and Philadelphia. I even drove to suburban Baltimore from here in D.C. one night to hear him play. That show sold out before I got there.
On Sunday, he was here in the Nation’s Capital playing the Hamilton, a restaurant/bar/music hall opened downtown a few months ago by the owners of Clyde’s, a popular Washington restaurant chain. On the verge of releasing a new CD, Burks will also play Chicago (at Buddy Guy’s Legends), St. Louis, Boca Raton, Tampa, Jacksonville Beach, and Iceland. Yeah, Iceland.
For us D.C. people, he will be back –at least within hollerin’ distance—on May 19, when plays the Chesapeake Blues Festival in Annapolis.
Burks is an artist of striking contrasts. When he’s just talking he’s easy going and relaxed—just the type of cat you’d expect to buy someone a beer on a humble.
He was especially relaxed at the Hamilton, where between songs he bantered from the stage with several relatives and friends who had known him in Camden, Arkansas, the Burks family homestead. They all live around D.C. now, and Burks, who resides in Little Rock, said he had not seen some of them in 30 years.
They were all excited to see him.
But Burks, who has the nickname “Iron Man,” becomes another person when he picks up his guitar. Serious. Studied. Intense. It is like watching Thor pick up his hammer. Check out the videos I recorded and you’ll see what I mean.
He has the type of musical heritage that a lot of other musicians only dream about. His grandfather, Joe Burks, was an old-style Delta blues guitarist in Camden and his father, Frederick, was a bass player. Frederick Burks eventually moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he worked the steel mills by day and played the clubs at night, sometimes backing Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Born in Milwaukee, Michael started learning guitar at the age of two. His father used a curious ruse to get him to learn songs: he began paying young Michael a dollar for every song he learned. But Frederick Burks discontinued that practice. To find out why, check out my interview with Michael below.
After a machine accident injured his hand in the early 1970’s, Frederick moved back to Camden and opened the Bradley Ferry Country Club, a 300-seat juke joint. The club provided ample performance experience for young Michael. In addition to fronting the house band, he played with rhythm and blues and blues legends who passed through the club.
When Bradley Ferry closed in the mid-80’s, Burks took a job as a mechanical technician for Lockheed-Martin. But the blues were still calling to him and in 1994 he formed his own band.
After From the Inside Out, Burks joined Alligator Records, for which he recorded 2001’s Make it Rain. It was hearing that album played inside of a Whitehall, Pennsylvania Border’s that first introduced me to Burks. He followed up that album with 2003’s I Smell Smoke and 2008’s Iron Man.
In our interview, Burks talked about the new album, among other things:

Since we were in D.C., I also asked his opinion on the recent blues performance at the White House featuring Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Shemekia Copeland and others:

Some of his friends and relatives from Camden talked about him:

His band played a set that included this cover of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone:”

There was also this cover of Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues For You:”

There was also this searing slow blues. Stay with it, because he talked a little while with the audience before getting underway with it:

There was also this song that he described as “Mississippi Hill Country Music:”

There was also this song:

Here is Burks website if you want to know more about him:
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