The blues world lost a major talent in Michael "Iron Man" Burks when the 54-year-old guitarist died unexpectedly in May 2012. Burks had all but finished his fourth Alligator Records release at the time of his death, the posthumous release of Show of Strength a reminder that our time here is short, and we have to make the most of what time we have left…a philosophy that Burks evidently lived to his final day.
Burks earned his "Iron Man" nickname by delivering hours-long, physically-demanding performances night after night, his soulful vocals matched by a fierce, unique guitar style that would leave audiences breathless. A charismatic performer, nobody left a Michael Burks show without a smile on their face, and the artist would climb behind the wheel of his van and drive hundreds of miles to his next show. A true blue-collar bluesman, Burks was the real deal...something more than proven by what is sadly his final album.
Michael "Iron Man" Burks' Show of Strength
Show of Strength opens with an icy cold riff that sounds like Eric Clapton channeling Albert Collins. "Count On You" is a perfect example of Burks' melding of hard-edged blues and smooth-as-silk soul, the song's title a deceptive play on words that masks the emotional anguish of the romantic betrayal laid out in the lyrics. Burks, a vastly underrated vocalist, does an unbelievable job of choking back the tears with fierce determination, the words punctuated by the wide slashes of colorful guitar that serve as a vehicle for the song's anger and frustration. It's an enormous performance, and while a talented band adds instrumental flourishes in the background – like Wayne Sharp's ethereal keyboard notes – this is Burks' show and he commands the spotlight.
While "Count On You" opens the door to Show of Strength with a mean uppercut, it's by no means the only knockout punch the album has to offer. Burks' original "Take A Chance On Me, Baby" is a deliberately-paced, slow-to-mid-tempo traditional blues plea, the musical equivalent of a controlled burn as Burks' fiery vocals are matched by his scorching fretwork and a deep, loping groove that his longtime rhythm section of bassist Terrence Grayson and Chuck "Popcorn" Louden maneuver like a formula one racecar.
Cross Eyed Woman
The guitarist engages in a little call-and-response with the band on "Can You Read Between The Lines?" Burks' vocals are a little more energetic here, mixing up Memphis soul and Southern rock atop a funky rhythm, his imaginative solos a little more Dixie fried than usual, his fluid guitar lines echoing Duane Allman more than obvious influences like Albert King. If Burks looked towards the South for that performance, he seems to have looked across the ocean for "Cross Eyed Woman," a muscular blues-rock barn-burner that sounds more like 1960s-era Free or Cream than like Burks' typical traditional blues fare.
Laying down some of the meanest slide-guitar licks that you've ever heard, Burks' blustery performance on "Cross Eyed Woman" is supported by a truly malevolent instrumental backdrop, the band – especially Sharp's Jon Lord-styled keyboard riffs – flexing like the first winds of a hurricane. The song's long instrumental lead-out, complete with high-flying Burks solo, will thrill blues guitar fans everywhere, displaying the guitarist's mastery of the form and knowledge of all facets of the blues.
Feel Like Going Home
After three albums with Alligator, Burks was coming into his own as a songwriter, and nowhere is this more evident than on the autobiographical "Little Juke Joint." A slow-burning blues jam that benefits from Scott Dirks' spirited harp playing, the song is based on Burks' family's Bradley Ferry Country Club juke-joint back home in Arkansas. Burks plays lively above a shuffling groove, flurries of notes hitting your ears like a boxer's body-blows as the singer recalls good times – and bad – as he colorfully describes the beloved family establishment, warts and all. Another Burks co-write, "Since I Been Loving You," is a hauntingly beautiful tale of love and betrayal delivered with a slow-dancing blues tempo, the guitarist's anguished vocals complimented by his mournful guitar notes and Sharp's sobbing keyboards. Burks' textured solos here definitely add to the vibe of the song, his playing full of emotion and muted but apparent strength.
Show of Strength closes with a cover of country legend Charlie Rich's "Feel Like Going Home," the song taking on an eerie prescience in the wake of the guitarist's unexpected passing. Burks delivers an incredible, gospel-tinged vocal performance above Roosevelt Purifoy's tasteful, elegant piano arrangement. Burks' voice sounds weary, ready to quit this world and prepared to accept the grace offered by the afterlife. His short guitar solos are perhaps, the best that Burks has ever put on tape – strong but not flashy, reverent but loudly vocal, drenched in mixed emotion and resolve, ready to accept the future whatever may come. It's an incredibly moving and powerful gospel-blues performance by an enormously talented artist.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
To his credit, Alligator's Bruce Iglauer, who co-produced Show of Strength with Burks, chose to leave the album as the two men had intended, as he says in the liner notes, "not as a memorial to a friend and bluesman gone, but as a living, breathing statement, sent straight from Michael's heart and soul. Although Michael is not here, the music he recorded is indeed his show of his immense strength and spirit. It will live on, confirming forever his status as one of the greatest bluesmen of his generation."
The apex of a career cut short far too soon, Show of Strength is a career-making milestone of an album, which makes me all the more angry that it's also the last music we'll ever hear from the talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Throughout it all, Burks' performance shines like a supernova, both his singing and guitar playing displaying great confidence, elegance, and melody, the man obviously pouring everything he had into Show of Strength. As a swansong, none could do better... (Alligator Records, released August 21, 2012)
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