After nearly 20 years as a performer, Michael Burks finally issued this debut disc, and his years of practical blues experience are evident on every track. While some of the guitar pyrotechnics may be more technique than substance, it cannot be denied that this fellow can tear up his ax. He sets the stakes on the muscular opener, "Hit the Ground Running," and maintains the intensity level through moodier tunes like "Beggin' Business." While his vocals are not stellar, he has a rich, gritty quality to his singing that is nicely matched to his guitar playing.
Michael Burks' third release on Alligator Records, Iron Man, is as close to being a live album as you can get from a studio performance. This could be attributed to Burks using his seasoned road band on this date instead of the Memphis studio musicians used previously on Make It Rain and I Smell Smoke. Alongside Burks' searing Flying V strut, Wayne Sharp's greasy Hammond B-3 dominates this set, reveling in soul and rock influences, including a cover version of Free's "Fire and Water," a definite nod to the blues-rock audience Burks has gained over his 30-plus years on the road. While Iron Man is an overall inspired modern electric blues disc, a few missteps hamper the session. "Ashes in My Ashtray," penned by Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson, would have made a better instrumental in this particular case, as the lyrics get in the way of an intense Burks guitar performance.
A continuation of the sound established on his Alligator debut, I Smell Smoke is even more impressive than its much-heralded predecessor. While vocally Michael Burks still invites comparison to Albert King, especially on gospel-fried ballads like "Lie to Me" (the Flying V guitar he sports on this album's cover shot further reinforces the similarities between the two artists), his guitar work has become more electrified and confident. With a tone sounding at times like Eric Clapton's psychedelic work in Cream and a rugged four-piece band supporting him, this is a tough, uncompromising contemporary blues/blues-rock/R&B album that doesn't pull punches. Co-produced and mixed by veteran Jim Gaines, the sound is professional but not polished, with Burks' strong persona commanding attention. However, the songs – which are far above average – are as important as the performance. Mostly written by outside sources, Burks avoids the crowd-pleasing covers that populate his live shows, instead digging into obscure tunes such as Latimore's "Let the Doorknob Hit You," delivering them with his gutsy punch.
On May 6th, 2012, Michael Burks was returning from a European tour while his wife, Bobbie, awaited him at home. Michael never arrived; he died on May 6th of heart failure, at a mere 54 years old. It's a tragic and untimely end to a bluesman who was in his prime, as evidenced by the impassioned performance and superior songs on his fourth Alligator studio waxing. Burks' husky build was mirrored in his similarly styled vocals and meaty guitar tone, all of which are in full force throughout these dozen tracks. Like his previous disc, this features his road band whose keyboard player, Wayne Sharp, is a major component of Burks' soulful sound.
After 35 years and the release of over 2800 contemporary blues tracks, it's safe to say that Bruce Iglauer's Alligator Records is the world's premier blues label, particularly if sheer numbers are factored in, and while the label's releases tend to sound mind-numbingly similar sometimes, this two-disc overview of Alligator's history shows how much raw vitality the blues still has in its tank. Alligator Records 35X35, arranged chronologically and featuring a selection drawn from each of the artist's debut albums with Alligator, gets rolling right where it all began, with Hound Dog Taylor's "She's Gone" from 1971, and marches through to 2004, closing the second disc with a stunning version of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (here called "A Dying Man's Plea") by the great Mavis Staples, who makes clear the deep affinity of gospel to the blues, or vice versa, since the two forms philosophically complete each other, the way Saturday marches straight into Sunday.
Starting with its 20th anniversary in 1991, every five years brings another double Alligator collection, and 2011 was no exception. While the 35th edition –released in 2006 – logically featured 35 songs, the compilers couldn't quite squeeze 40 onto this 40th anniversary disc, even though owner Bruce Iglauer does admit to fading a few endings off prematurely in order to maximize the list, which hits 38 selections. The trick with these albums is to both pay tribute to the label's storied past while including enough recent acts to connect the dots between the house-rocking music Iglauer built his company on, and the more modern yet still roots-based sounds he's released during the last five years. He does an excellent job here, mixing not just old and new, but male and female musicians who have recorded for Alligator over the decades.