Michael Lee – Self Titled
Ruf Records – 2019
11 tracks; 48 minutes
Texan Michael Lee made a big impression on The Voice when he sang “The Thrill Is Gone”, a performance that has subsequently been viewed over six million times on YouTube – who says that the blues can’t cross into the mainstream? That performance got Michael the opportunity to reprise his version of the BB King classic with The BB King Blues Band and he has been fronting that band live too, but this album is more about showing the Dallas/Fort Worth native in a variety of styles.
Michael wrote all the material apart from “Thrill”, working with Jacob Furr, Joey Green, Franc West and Blake Burrows on four songs, the rest being solo compositions. On nine of the eleven tracks the band is Michael on guitar and vocals, Colin Campbell on keys, Scott Lee on bass and Blaine Crews on drums: a horn section of Jordan Carr and Evan Templeton on trumpet and Preston Lewis on sax appears on six cuts. On the other two tracks Michael is joined by Anthony Farrell on keys, Charley Wiles on rhythm guitar and Clint Simmons on drums.
The album is book ended by two of the heavier tracks here: opener “Heart Of Stone” has some grungy guitar effects at the start before developing into a stomping blues-rock piece punctuated by the horns; closer “Go Your Own Way” is a sort of ‘Crossroads’ tale in which Michael is told to follow his own path in life and music, blending a chugging blues rocker and a wild organ-led romp, Michael adding some torrid guitar to the final section.
The version of “The Thrill Is Gone” here is not as distinctive as that on the BB King Blues Band album which was one of the best interpretations that this reviewer has heard of a frequently covered song. The version here lacks the horns and is more of a ‘chugger’ with heavy bass and keys behind Michael’s impassioned vocal and rocky guitar. However, Michael proves on “Don’t Leave Me” that he can play some delicate stuff, very much in BB style at the opening of the song, before it develops into an attractive gospel-fueled piece of soul-blues balladry. “This Is” is another ballad with aching guitar and a strong vocal performance and “Here I Am” confirms that Michael’s voice is particularly suited to a slower tune, this time with a striking horn chart.
“Weeds” is a strong song, inspired by moving into a new house and thinking about spending a lifetime there with his wife, driven along by the twin trumpets, and the catchy shuffle “Can’t Kick You” is another winner. The Texas heat and drought must have inspired “Praying For Rain”, a heavier tune with pounding rhythm section, “Love Her” has a touch of funk in the rhythm while “Fool Of Oz” is a pure rock ballad.
Michael shows here that he has a wide palette of styles available to him. For a blues aficionado the songs with the strongest blues base will be the favorites but it will be interesting to see whether Michael stays in the blues or heads elsewhere – he certainly has choices from the evidence here.