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CD REVIEW -- Mike Wheeler


Self Made Man

Delmark Records

Mike Wheeler CD

By Brian K. Read

If Mike Wheeler starred in a cowboy movie, he’d be the one leading the posse up over the hill, to the rescue just in the nick of time.   That’s how his new Delmark CD, Self Made Man, breaks into song, with the rollicking “Here I Am,” a veritable stampede of good-time music, from one of the good-time champions of the blues.  Once those good times start to roll, they don’t let up until thirteen groovin’, bluesin’, feel-good tracks later, guaranteed to leave you feeling better than before.


A lot of blues guys pride themselves on their badass image, gunslingers out to prove they are faster, meaner and badder than any of the rest.  Mike Wheeler isn’t out to prove he’s the fastest, though his fingers fly on tracks like “Moving Forward”; or that he’s the meanest guy around, even though he tells it like it is on the closing track “I’m Working,” a rocking blues number about the trials and tribulations of the working bluesman’s reality (while keeping in mind what it takes to make it out there).


Mike Wheeler just wants you to hear his stories, through not just words, but also through the intense emotions he squeezes out of every note he plays on guitar.  It may be funky, it may be jazzy, it may be fast or slow, but like all great artists, Mike’s style is immediately recognizable, and his guitar can sure do some talking too.


Mike is one of those guys who has paid his dues (for 30 years he’s worked with bands like Big James & the Chicago Playboys, Big Ray & Chicago’s Most Wanted, Peaches Staten & the Grooveshakers and more) , but has maintained a positive attitude and uplifting energy in his music all along the way.  That kind of perseverance takes a lot of determination, and it helps that Mike has such a great crew of musicians on his team, to get that job done right.  Brian James floats some sweet notes on keyboard, the rhythm section is anchored tight between Larry Williams on bass and solid-sender Cleo Cole on drums, and some tasty harp stylings from youngblood Omar Coleman.


Omar Coleman’s harp is featured on the classic “Chicago Blues,” in which Mike tells the story of how he first heard the blues at the age of ten, then went through periods of rock, jazz, and all the rest.  But he sings about coming back to the Chicago blues, and then taking those roots abroad, touring Europe to rave reviews.   Mike gives the young harp player plenty of room to play on this classic Chicago blues-grind, and Omar shows why he’s such a part of the conversation when it comes to the blues carrying on with the younger generation.


Larry Williams, one of Mike’s friends from childhood, lays down the bass lines with aplomb, always solid in the pocket, and he stands out on “Join Hands,” with his signature thumb-slapping style.  “The world ain’t what it used to be…we rise above it all to see…it’s getting better every day…no matter what you hear or say…”  It’s great to hear some positive messages in the blues, and stories that uplift people, about getting through the hard times together, towards a better day.


Stories are what Mike Wheeler weaves throughout all of his blues.   He shares that skill with contemporaries like Toronzo Cannon, Quintus McCormick and others breaking through on the blues scene today; stories about…well, just the “stuff” we all have to go through in life.  “I would say that the blues is about everyday life, the dealings that people go through in relationships and work…you know, just everyday living,” goes the quote leading off the liner notes.  In the words of the immortal Pogo, “Truer words was never spake.”


Mike and the band cover one of my favorite blues tunes, Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby,” a song that Koko Taylor made famous.   Stevie Ray Vaughan took a rock-blues approach to his version of the song, but Mike’s more faithful arrangement returns us to the original funky little riff that was Willie Dixon’s signature style.


Kudos to Steve Wagner, at Delmark Records, who brought Mike Wheeler and band into the studio, after hearing him play out live.  The Delmark sound, still led by founder Bob Koester, is always clean and faithful to the blues the way it is meant to be heard, a live-ensemble sound that preserves the intentions of the artists, without being intrusive or over-produced.


I remember seeing Mike Wheeler playing back in the day, with cats like Lovie Lee, an old time piano player from Muddy Waters’ band, at Lilly’s on Lincoln.  I lived right around the corner from Lilly’s, and could often just listen out my window to hear the blues streaming out of the club.   A lot of us musicians got our first chance to sit in at Lilly’s, with the likes of Sunnyland Slim, Aaron Burton, or Detroit Junior.  It is a shame that the club no longer caters to the blues, but when it did, it was a place where you could find the blues veterans, but also the up and comers like Mike Wheeler too.


Mike soaked up the sounds of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and all the rest from a young age, when his mother would play blues, R&B and soul records around the house.  How fitting that Mike should end up sharing the stage with some of his very early influences, and now is able to pay tribute to them in his own music.  You can hear strains of those early blues greats echoed throughout each of the CD’s tunes.


So if you want to feel better in just under an hour, slide Mike Wheeler’s new CD Self Made Man into the machine, and let the positive power of the music work the magic.  It’s cheaper than a trip to the doctor, and who knows, maybe the blues is just the cure you need!


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