I first heard Burks when I picked up his debut CD, From the Inside Out. It was released by Vent Records, a small label out of Alabama in 1997 and fortunately, the record store I used to frequent was only about half an hour from Alabama, so they carried most of Vent Records' catalog.
There were several things that grabbed me about his first release. Vocally, he sounded like Albert King and while King would never be mistaken from Perry Como (vocally or physically), he did have a gruff, distinctive style. Burks sounded just like him at times. He also played guitar a lot like King did, but really, what modern-day blues guitarist didn't borrow just a little bit from King??!! He retained King's style, but also brought a sharper edge to King's muscular style, resulting in some amazing solos.
The other thing I noticed was that Burks wrote all eleven tracks on this release, which was almost unheard of for a new artist on their debut release. Not only did he write the songs, they were good songs, too. From the Inside Out was a surprisingly good debut release (which is now, naturally, out of print). I decided to keep an eye out for this Michael Burks guy, thinking he would end up being somebody special.
From the Inside Out was a complete Michael Burks production....he wrote all the songs and even produced the disc.....and it received rave reviews. In 2001, Burks signed with Alligator Records and released Make It Rain. His Alligator debut was produced by head 'Gator Bruce Iglauer and legendary producer (Luther Allison, Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan). There were some nice moments, with the appropriately-titled opening tune, "Hit the Ground Running," "Got a Way With Women," and the moody title cut. There was also a nice Albert King-like tune, "Everybody's Got Their Hand Out," one of several written or co-written by Burks.....another was "Don't Let It Be A Dream." All in all, it was a nice start for Burks, and for Alligator, they added a blues guitarist on par with Luther Allison, whose passing in 1997 had left a huge void for the label and for the blues in general.
I Smell Smoke, is probably his best. While he still retains a touch of Albert King in his vocals, he really starts to expand his range on this disc. His guitar work is incredibly intense, even on the slow blues tunes. On this disc, he mostly handles cover material, such as Dion Payton's "All Your Affection's Gone," Jon Tiven's funky title track, and Benny Lattimore's "Let The Doorknob Hit You." The three songs he did have a hand in writing ("Time I Came In Out of the Rain" "Miss Mercy," and "I Hope He's Worth My Pain") are all first-rate. Though the intensity is high for the most part on these tracks, he does settle down a bit for the album closer, "Snake Eggs," a duet with Burks and Memphis harmonica ace Billy Gibson.
Iron Man featured Burks with his band instead of the Memphis musicians he used on his previous two discs. Despite their absence, the disc still has a greasy soul feel, thanks to Wayne Sharp's work on the Hammond B3. There are some strong songs here by Burks, including "Love Disease," "Strange Feeling," and "Icepick Through My Heart," and "Changed Man" (the last two co-written with Iglauer). I also liked the Jimmy Johnson cover, "Ashes in My Ashtray," and the crunching cover of Free's "Fire and Water." Burks' vocals continued to develop and improve and his guitar work was as awesome as ever. Have you ever heard a musician who amazingly continues to improve when he actually was as great as anyone you'd ever heard the first time you heard him? Does that make any sense whatsoever? That's the feeling I always had with Michael Burks.
"Best of" collection in 2010, that gathered the cream of his three releases. Burks had also just completed recording his fourth Alligator disc, which is slated for a July release. It's depressing when these guys pass away too early. Most blues fans figured Burks had a long career ahead of him. From what I've heard from those who saw him live, Burks' stage performances put his recordings to shame, which had to be something else, based on the intensity of his work on the above mentioned discs. Hopefully, somebody has a live performance in the can that we will get to enjoy one day in the near future.
Sadly, Thorn only came out for one song, wearing a blonde wig. The song, "Up Above My Head," was okay, but it would have been great to hear more of them together. Oh well, maybe each of them were able to introduce the other to their groups of fans.
By the way, congratulations to Ms. Foster for winning two BMA's last night, one for Best DVD (Live at Antones) and the Koko Taylor Award (for Best Traditional Female).