Fourth Alligator album from blues stalwart hits all the right notes
Michael Burks was an old-fashioned guitar slinger, a big guy with a big voice who played a hard-hitting form of electric blues of a style popularized by the likes of Albert King and Albert Collins. His fourth album for blues stalwarts Alligator Records, Show of Strength turned out to be his final album as well, released three months after his death by heart attack in May of this year. If Burks never strayed too far from the classic blues template, he still managed to inject enough energy and verve—not to mention plain old string-bending pyrotechnics—to keep that template sounding vital.
Album opener "Count on You" lets you know what to expect immediately, with its potent combination of wah-wah guitar noodling and bittersweet chorus of "I can always count on you—to let me down". Subtle it ain't, but then again it's not trying to be.
Burks is backed up nicely throughout the record, especially on bass and keyboards. A nicely propulsive bassline works well on "Count on You", while follow-up tune "Take a Chance on Me, Baby" makes good use of gurgling organ in its swampy, downtempo blues. Unlike many modern blues singers, who excel at either the uptempo tunes or else prefer the slow, down-and-dirty numbers, Burks displays equal skill at both.
He's also not afraid to let a song stretch out and find its groove. "Since I Been Loving You" unrolls for seven and a half glorious minutes (and could be twice as long—but that's another story), and any number of tunes top the five-minute mark. "Cross-Eyed Woman" is another mini-epic, a mid-tempo chug-a-lug with an irresistibly thrumming rhythm. Shades of Jimi color the sonic template, as do the vocals sung in unison with the guitar line, but the delivery is all Burks.
This isn't to say that the whole album is murky and sludgy, although enough of it is to be satisfyingly bluesy. There are a good number of toe-tappers and booty-shakers as well. Both "Storm Warning" and "I Want to Get You Back" are uptempo boogie-blues tunes, with "Storm Warning" perhaps edging out the other in terms of energy—but just barely. Meanwhile, "Little Juke Joint" brings the listener to jump-blues territory, with some nifty harmonica thrown in. Again, none of this is stuff is anything that you haven't heard a hundred time before, but Burks assembles the pieces smartly and delivers both the vocals and guitar twanging with dexterity and conviction.
The final tune here, a piano ballad called "Feel Like Going Home", deserves special mention as a haunting evocation of a man who is just plain tired and ready to pack it in. The fact that Burks recorded this soon before his death lends an unmistakable resonance to the tune, and when he sings, "From all the places I have been, now I feel like going home", one can't help reflecting on his imminent death. Despite this, the song is uplifting rather than depressing, a fitting finale for a career that contained a good bit of success, but also much promise that will remain forever unfulfilled. Michael Burks was a singer and guitar player who was taken too early. He will be missed.