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Guitar Mikey Blows Blues Tradition Out Of The Box
Clarksdale Press Register - Feb 22, 2012
By Jesse Wright

In his biography of Skip James, Stephen Calt notes that a lot of early blues musicians would sing about sadness, about losing women and money, but musically the songs were meant to be entertaining, meant to accompany dancing, and pack clubs tight. Guitar Mikey-AKA Mike McMillan, the Canadian-born blues musician now living in Clarksdale-keeps that tradition alive with his new album "Out of the Box."

The album - his first studio album in almost 20 years and his first studio album in Clarksdale-represents a different direction, musically, from most blues around here. It's different from a lot of blues anywhere. The first track, "Back to You," is a raucous fusion of organ, over-driven guitar tone, slide guitar, drums and mandolin and country lamentation of lost love. Even so, it's hard to keep from tapping your foot along to the rocking 4/4 beat.

The attempt to straddle tradition with expansion is a constant balancing act throughout the album. One of the more traditional songs, "The Bigger Fool," is McMillan's tribute to Chicago Blues. McMillan knows Chicago blues; he met Muddy Waters when he was 11; he lived in Chicago for four years after he left his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario in 1997. Even so, "The Bigger Fool" is his first attempt to replicate the sound and, he said, it didn't come easy.

"That was the most difficult song for me to write on the entire album," he said. "How do you write a Muddy Waters Chicago Blues song as make it sound official?"

In other words, how can you go back in time and do what's already been done by people who did it better than anybody else, before or since?

You can't, really. Which is probably why Guitar Mikey is not a Chicago Blues musician, which is why his songs are filled with so many iconoclastic flourishes-a tango tempo here, some over-driven tone there.

"How can you keep writing the same construct over and over and expect it to sound fresh and new," he said. "It's just been done, and it's been done so well, how can you do it again?"

McMillan is trying instead to relaunch his blues career.

In 1990 McMillan released his first major studio album, "Caught Between the Squeeze," with A&M Records. This was supposed to be the first album in a seven year contract and it should have been the first stop along a lengthy and successful career path. But with management problems and other disagreements, McMillan left the label and never made another record for them. He said that part of the problem was, people didn't know what to do with him. Was he rock? Was he blues? He's always been a bit of both, and he said that's been a problem-or at least it was.

"The working title of "Out of the Box" was "File Under Blues, File Under Rock," he said, laughing. Of course, with fewer record stores to file with, perhaps the limiting filing categories will be less of a problem, and, anyway, live audiences seem to like what he has to offer, even in Clarksdale.

"My impression is that both the tourists and the locals love the variety of the music that I put in the show," he said. The album's revised title, "Out of the Box," refers to that variety.

"My hope is that I can be farther out of the box, but still retain a blues sensibility," he said.

Every year he plays an annual Elvis birthday tribute concert (he's a big fan of rockabilly and Ronnie "the Hawk" Hawkins once considered hiring McMillan as a member of Hawkins' own band). "I like the Elvis shows," he said. "I get to play material I don't get to play very often. This year, toward the end of the night, as things got a little loser, I played some Hendrix songs and people went wild."

There's no Elvis on this album (there was on his first) or Hendrix, and in fact there're no covers at all. As it is, his original material is varied enough, including the eponymous "Out of the Box," a tango that surprised even him.

"Who'd've thought I'd write a tango? I didn't think I'd ever write a tango," he said. But from a guitarist who says sites his influences as Scrapper Blackwell and Deep Purple, a tango isn't such a surprise. The album, which is out on Earwig Music, is due out in April and McMillan said he will have an album launch party at his Juke Joint Festival show. That show will be at Hicks BBQ, 30 South State Street, April 14. Hicks is a special place for McMillan, as that was the first Juke Joint show he ever played featuring Billy Gibson. It was there he met Michael Frank (the owner of Earwig).

For the remainder of this year, and for most of next year, McMillan said he expects to be touring the new album, across the U.S., Canada and Europe. McMillan said he is excited and hopeful.

"It's all very exciting," he said. "I kind of feel like my papers might be in order to break out. I don't feel like I've ever broken out, and I feel like more musicians know who I am than fans."

He also expects to become a naturalized citizen this year. In a journey that's taken him from Canada to the Mississippi Delta, by way of Chicago and Boston, McMillan said he's happy to make Clarksdale his permanent base of operations. Clarksdale is a small place, compared to his Canadian hometown with more than half a million people, but McMillan said he's only got one complaint.

"I haven't slowed down as much as I'd hoped to," he said. "I still have it programmed in me, that big city mentality. I'm a bit better, but living in Clarksdale hasn't had as big of an impact as I'd hoped."

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