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From Hamilton to Clarksdale and back
The Spec - April, 2012
By Graham Rockingham

Guitar Mikey in action Guitar Mikey will take part in a live video concert/video at The Spectator Thursday prior to his release concert Saturday. Special to The Hamilton Spectator

Many people consider Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues - the place where legendary blues pioneer Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery over his guitar.

Now, Clarksdale is also home to Hamilton's Guitar Mikey.

"We're pretty happy in Clarksdale," says Mikey, a.k.a. Mike McMillan. "It's the friendliest place I've ever been on the planet. That's what inspired us to move there after taking a musical history tour."

The "musical history tour" Mikey is talking about is a three-week visit he and his wife Pamela made to the Mississippi delta town in 2003. But, in truth, Mikey's musical journey started back in the late '70s when he was growing up on Hamilton's East Mountain. He had a couple of rock bands while still a student at Barton Secondary School and even won a citywide battle of the bands.

But Mikey's musical education didn't really start until 1980 when he met Richard Newell, the great Hamilton blues artist known as King Biscuit Boy.

"Just after I won that band competition, I got booked into the Festival of Friends," Mikey explains. "I met Richard backstage where he was jamming with Long John Baldry. We started talking and, about a year later, we started playing together. I was about 17 or 18 when we started playing together. Richard joined my band, The Steel City Blues Band."

Mikey tapped into Newell's vast knowledge of the blues and gained access to his formidable record collection. Mikey became a blues fanatic and a very good guitarist in the process. In the mid-'80s, King Biscuit Boy resumed recording solo while Mikey put together a new band he called The Real Thing.

The band played a regular Sunday night gig for about eight years at the Gown & Gavel in Hess Village. His reputation grew and his residency became a regular stop for travelling blues musicians. Mississippi harmonica player Carey Bell sat in, as did Memphis guitar slinger Luther Tucker and Phil Guy, brother of the great Buddy Guy.

His thirst for authentic blues lured Mikey to Chicago where he lived for four years, starting in 1997. His music career, however, got sidetracked by a computer software business he had developed. He spent another six years in Boston before making the decision to move to the deep south, the place where it all started for Robert Johnson.

King Biscuit Boy's tutelage paid off handsomely in Clarksdale. The locals were impressed with both his talent and his knowledge. Mikey soon found himself hosting the popular Thursday night jam sessions at Ground Zero Blues Club, a popular destination for blues tourists from around the world (Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman is a co-owner).

"People (in Clarksdale) were telling me that I was raising the bar there musically," Mikey says.

He became a regular at blues festivals, including Clarksdale's Juke Joint Festival, meeting southern musicians such as harmonica player Billy Gibson and former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob (Steady Rollin') Margolin, as well as catching the eye of Chicago-based blues label Earwig Music.

Earwig signed the Hamilton-born guitarist and is releasing a new CD by Guitar Mikey And The Real Thing on April 17. The CD is called Out Of The Box and contains 15 original tracks, written by Mikey (nine are cowritten with veteran Hamilton bassist Doug Carter, who was with Newell at the outset of the harpist's career).

The album spans a wide array of blues styles from acoustic country blues to hard-driving blues rock and features musicians from both Ontario (Peter Nunn, keyboardist of Honeymoon Suite) and the U.S. (Margolin, Gibson and Mark Yaccavone on piano). It's a superbly produced album, recorded in Clarksdale, that will be appreciated by blues fans on both sides of the border.

On Saturday, April 7, Guitar Mikey is bringing his Real Thing band to Hamilton for a hometown preview of the new album. Expect a few special guests to join The Real Thing onstage at the Molson Canadian Studio at Hamilton Place.

Guitar Mikey will also visit The Hamilton Spectator newsroom to perform a special live webcast on Wednesday, April 4, at 7:30 p.m.

Guitar Mikey and The Real Thing
What: CD release concert for Out Of The Box
When: Saturday, April 7, 8 p.m.
Where: Molson Canadian Studio at Hamilton Place
Tickets: $15, plus service fees at Copps Coliseum box office, or by phone at 1-855-5000

Guitar Mikey at
What: A live video concert/interview featuring Guitar Mikey and hosted by Hamilton Spectator music editor Graham Rockingham
When: Wednesdsay, April 4, 7:30 p. m.

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