Iris Music Group IMG 968-3
14 songs – 42 minutes
New York-based guitarist, vocalist and activist Michael Packer delivers his swan song with this album, the third chapter in his musical autobiography, which was in the can and released only a few days after he lost his life to liver cancer on May 6, 2017.
Age 66 at his passing, Packer lived the life of a true bluesman. As he detailed in previous releases, he spared no detail in describing his path from early stardom to alcoholism, drugs, homelessness, jail and eventual redemption. He laid it all on the line, exposing warts others certainly would have hidden in the past.
Born in Manhattan and raised in nearby Bedford Hills, Michael’s first paying gig came at age 15 at the legendary Bitter End in Greenwich Village. At 19 in 1969, he formed the country rock band Papa Nebo, which included future Grammy-winning jazz fusion saxophonist Bob Mintzer of the Yellowjackets. They were so good that Ahmet Ertegun himself signed them to his Atlantic Records label.
Relocating to San Francisco, he and George Thorogood played on the streets for tips at the height of Height-Ashbury before he returned to New York in 1973 to form Free Beer, a band that produced three LPs on Buddah and RCA that all charted in the Billboard Top 100. But drinking and drugs took their toll. Michael abandoned music in the late ’80s and eventually spent a year in the infamous Rikers Island after being convicted of theft.
Packer became a respected member of the New York blues community after turning his life around, releasing a succession of albums that featured his laid-back vocals and unique guitar stylings influenced by both Lightnin’ Hopkins and B.B. King in the process. But his charitable efforts were larger than life.
He was a prime mover in the regional Blues Music Halls Of Fame, and he singlehandedly started the Blues For Peace movement. Several concerts overseas successfully raised money for the United Nations refugee program, but proved problematic back home, where one show scheduled for the White House in 2016 was cancelled at the last minute because the stage was one or two inches in height out of specifications and another in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square never happened because a portable electric transformer blew up moments before show time, nearly killing Packer’s drummer in the process.
This release features Packer in both acoustic and electric formats. The description in the header of this review is slightly misleading because there are actually only seven songs, all original on the album, each of which Michael introduces with a spoken monolog. None of the backing musicians are credited in the packaging, but are all top notch. One cut, which was recorded live at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago for a Hall Of Fame induction ceremony includes guitarist Mike Wheeler on guitar, bassist Melvin Smith, drummer Willie “The Touch” Hayes and keyboard player Roosevelt Purifoy.
The opener, “Blues For Peace,” is a simple acoustic number that describes the heartache he endured at home after successfully launching his campaign in Mexico, Australia, France, Ukraine, Israel and Iran with another planned for Cyprus cancelled because of travel problems related to political unrest in Turkey. Michael’s delivery is wistful despite his obvious inner pain. “Fields Of Sorrow” is an electric blues co-written by Ed Jackson. It recounts the eerie feeling Packer’s band felt while walking along the grounds of Hobson Plantation in Mississippi after a festival in which David “Honeyboy” Edwards joined them on stage. The spirit of the slaves who toiled in that field was so strong, it was overpowering and they were forced to leave.
“Yo Staten Island” incorporates “Born Under A Bad Sign” into a rap that recalls the death of Eric Garner, the large black family man who was killed by police using an outlawed choke hold after stopping him for selling individual cigarettes on the street a couple of blocks from Michael’s home. “Flash Flame” describes the ill-fated Washington Park performance, while “Chicago,” which features the all-star lineup described above, is a slow, sweet number that pays tribute to the Windy City and the blues.
Packer obviously knew that his time was numbered, as revealed in the final two sections. “Do It All Over” is a thinly veiled love song to a lady loved, lost and who still remains a friend, while the closer, “Mr. Packer,” serves as an aural epitaph.
Michael went down fighting, still planning to get out of the house to play an afternoon benefit at a church festival on the morning he died. It’s obvious that he made peace with himself before he passed — and his story is definitely worth a listen. Available through Amazon and iTunes.