Delmark Records DE 845
13 songs – 66 minutes
The rich catalog of Chicago institution Delmark Records features some of the best “new” blues artists in the world today — including Corey Dennison, Guy King and Omar Coleman — and such legends as Jimmy Johnson, Jimmy Burns and Lurrie Bell, but the hardest working member of the label’s lineup has to be Mike Wheeler.
It doesn’t matter what you drop into in the Windy City, you’re probably going to run into the affable Wheeler performing somewhere, often twice a day, either with a full band as demonstrated on this sensational debut CD or in a solo acoustic setting, as he takes his rightful place in the forefront of the blues world. Fortunately for music lovers everywhere, he’s finally retired from a career at a local hospital and now able to take his music around the globe.
A hard-working family man with prodigious guitar skills and a voice that some critics compare to the late Sam Cooke, Wheeler’s history includes work with Peaches Staten, Nelly Tiger Travis and Demetria Taylor. He launched this band a couple of years ago after spending years as a prominent fixture in slide trombone player Big James Montgomery’s Chicago Playboys, with whom he recorded five albums.
A 2014 Chicago Blues Hall Of Fame inductee, Wheeler seamlessly blends blues, jazz and R&B into something that’s fading fast in the Windy City, a traditional South Side soul-blues sound with rock-blues overtones. He’s backed here by the dynamic Larry Williams, a longtime partner and veteran of Big James, Tyrone Davis, Koko Taylor and George Benson bands, on bass as well as veteran timekeeper Cleo Cole on drums and Brian James, who’s been musical director for both the Chi-Lites and the Drifters, on keys. They’re augmented by a horn section of Kenny Anderson on trumpet and Hank Ford on tenor sax.
Wheeler wrote all but one tune on Turn Up!! He kicks off the opening number, “Sweet Girl,” with a stinging guitar run as he sets the mood for what’s to follow. It’s a medium-fast shuffle that implores a lady to remain at his side for eternity. His single-note solos are accented by crisp horn lines and a fine, brief solo on keys. “You Won’t Do Right” percolates as it describes a woman who simply defies understanding by running around at night while her man sits home loyally waiting.
The funky “Yeah!” – about yearning for a woman who walks in to a bar like she owns the place – follows before Wheeler offers up a ride in the blues-rocker “Brand New Cadillac.” The mood turns jazzy for a complaint about a woman who won’t listen in “Talking To Myself” before the title tune “Turn Up!!” relates the passion the singer experiences whenever a certain woman is around.
The mood slows for the straight-ahead blues, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” about the frailty of a relationship despite the desire for it to survive. In this case, it’s coming to an end because the woman’s cheating. The next number, “I Can’t Do That,” carries the theme forward with the singer saying he can’t sit pat while the lady’s running around.
Wheeler delivers his autobiography in “Living My Dream,” relating how he picked up a guitar for the first time at age 16 and spent decades working by day and playing music at night, before he finally got to do what he loves fulltime. Next up, a burning guitar solo introduces “A Blind Man Can See,” about the end of a love affair. It precedes the only cover in the set, a fast-paced version of Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” Two more tunes — “I’m Hooked,” about love at first sight, and “Sad State Of The World,” a ballad about the tragedies unfolding locally on the TV news each day – bring the album to a close.
Available through all major retailers and nominated for a 2016 BluesBlast Award for Rock Blues Album, Turn Up!! is a stellar debut from a former secret treasure in Chicago. If you love the South Side blues sounds of the ‘70s and ’80s, you’ll love this one. It’s old school for the new century. At more than an hour in length, it has plenty to offer. And turn it up. It deserves it!