The opportunity to review the new album by Michael Burks is, for me at least, a bittersweet one. Being an immense fan of the guitar-driven blues the Southern Delta Region has long been famous for, when this Louisiana boy found himself moving to Arkansas nearly nine years ago, it wasn’t long before I started looking for local musicians who fit that bill. When I did so, thanks to a suggestion from a local record shop, I found the music of Burks and it was love at first guitar lick.
The first of his albums I purchased was called, appropriately enough, Make It Rain. And, boy did he. Burks and his wonderful guitar made music rain down upon my ears and I fell in love with it. From there, I found his original independent release, From the Inside Out and the other two of his three releases on Alligator Records after Make It Rain which were I Smell Smoke and Iron Man.
It is no hyperbole when I tell you I love every album.
Maybe that is why in May of this year, seeing the news that Burks had passed away hit me so hard. On his way back home to Little Rock, Arkansas, after a very successful tour of Europe, he had a heart attack and died between connecting flights in Atlanta, Georgia. He was only 54.
I think perhaps part of the sadness I felt was the realization that there would be no more music from this man and his wonderful guitar. Much like another guitar hero of mine, Stevie Ray Vaughan, an early death had robbed the world of wonderful music.
What I did not know then was that before he had left to go on tour in Europe, Burks had been working on the new album, now his new and final CD, Show of Strength.
Without a doubt, it is not only my favorite Michael Burks album, but in fact one of the best blues albums I have heard in the past 15 years. Perhaps it has something to do with my knowing that the man has passed away, but I am not so sure. There is just an inherent and earthy wonderfulness to this album that I think, on its own, manages to rise above the circumstances of its release.
From the striking guitar licks that open the album with the song, “Count on You,” there is not a wasted note or moment on this album. Burks is on guitar and vocals, Wayne Sharp on organ piano, Terrance Grayson on bass, and Chuck “Popcorn” Lauden on drums. Together, they have created a posthumous masterpiece.
One of my favorite moments on this record is “Take a Chance on Me, Baby,” the second track, which truly demonstrates how tight this band was and how ready they were to record this album. Others include “Can You Read Between the Lines,” a funky and truly catchy song about the eight warning signs to let you know whether your woman is being true to you, and the achingly gorgeous “Feel Like Going Home.” It is the album’s closing track, and it had me literally in tears when its final note finished echoing in my headphones.
I love every track on this album, but if I want to be honest here, I really want to focus on that final track. Show of Strength ends on this amazing song about how all of us, whether at the end of a day, a trip, or at the end of our lives, simply want to go home. I dare you to find a more beautiful sentiment or song.
Show of Strength is a wonderful album and shows striking maturity and growth—Burks actually helped pen five of the songs on it—in a career that should have been destined to last for decades to come. Instead, if we are do to Burks and the work he and his band did on this album any sort of justice, we must push aside all of the “what if” and “what might have been” thoughts and realize the fact that it IS a wonderful album.
The previous albums that Burks put out were wonderful in their own right. Each of them had this startling vibrancy and urgency that comes with the very best of the bravado that blues music brings with it. Coupled with the proficiency at electric guitar that comes from having picked it up at the tender age of six, the deep-throated growl of a voice that Howlin’ Wolf himself would’ve taken notice of, Burks’ music could do nothing but shine. The only thing I could ever say against Burks and his music was perhaps that it seemed to relish too much the typical role of a blues singer, to have the biggest d*ck, be the best womanizer, be the baddest man who ever lived, or to embody all three at the same time like Muddy Waters.
When the new album is released on August 27, I can think of nothing you should be doing other than walking through the door of the closest music store or logging in to the closest computer and purchasing either a physical or digital copy. I know that I will be doing just that.