Michael Pickett’s Solo

cover art for SoloWhiskey Howl was a Toronto based blues band from the Sixties. They appeared at the Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival Show where the Plastic Ono Band performed. Michael Pickett was a member of Whiskey Howl, and now he is a solo blues singer, still working out of the Big Smoke, still providing a link between the shores of Lake Ontario and the levees of the Mississippi River, and Solo is his latest collection.

I once saw Whiskey Howl … somewhere. They say if you can remember the 60s you weren’t there … and I will admit it’s getting harder to remember the specifics, but I do remember they rocked the joint! Pickett does too, and he does it all by himself. Playing four different guitars (one at a time, of course) and rack mounted harmonica, Pickett captures the essence of the Mississippi blues, and still manages to give it his own spin.

Most of the blues on Solo are penned by Pickett, but they use the familiar riffs and structure of the classic blues upon which they are based. Twelve bar blues is perhaps the most restricted format in the musician’s catalogue of styles and yet it allows for some of the most liberating results ever heard. Three chords, repeated lines, and stock riffs are twisted and shifted, turned and stretched, and possessed individually by the best blues performers. Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf all come to mind. They all played by the same rules, but put their own stamp on everything they touched. Pickett has his own sound too.

Okay, maybe he’s not Muddy or Charley Patton but he covers Johnson’s “Steady Rollin’ Man” with confidence, and does a nice version of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s “Living With the Blues.” His own lyrics speak of life in his own delta, the corner of “Cecil & Spadina.” He sings about living in “The ‘Hood” and how he “feel[s] like a stranger … in [his] own home town.” This is a common complaint of blues singers; they are strangers in the land.

His rendition of Sticks McGhee’s “Lonesome Road” is moody and evocative, played on a Gibson 12-string echoing Leadbelly. His bottleneck workouts, played on a 1931 National Steel Duolian and a newer Yanuziello resophonic are precise and stirring. “World in an Uproar” and “Louise” hit a solid groove, and then he rides the glass slide brilliantly around the fretboard. A “Rollin’ & Tumblin'” influence is felt on “Blues is a Friend of Mine,” but Pickett provides new directions on this powerful original.

His ability to play the harp in a rack is extraordinary. It’s not easy to get as much emotion out of the harmonica when it’s resting on a wire rack around your neck, but Pickett does it well. Listen to Sonny & Brownie’s “Lose Your Money.” Fabulous!

The sound Michael Pickett gets is clear with an edge. The guitars are beautiful — it’s like they’re in the room with you. This is the sound I love in solo recordings; the intimacy and warmth of live performance. Pickett and co-producer Alec Fraser capture it wonderfully. Solo is a fine addition to the blues collection. Now I’d like to hear Michael Pickett with a band!

(Wooden Teeth Records, 2002)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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