As a former member of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble, he has his roots deep in the blues, but has re-invented himself as a Blues/Gospel artist, with more than half an ear to the classic arrangements of the ‘sixties.
With his long-awaited release out in the last 24 hours, it seemed a good time to look through the superb Mike Farris solo catalogue.
So here is the Walker-Words guide to buying Mike Farris, based on my reviews as they came out.
Salvation In Lights
Label: INO Records
Length: 11 tracks / 45 mins
Feeling down? Here is some highly effective medication. Like lava from the Earth’s crust, intoxicating soul seeps, oozes and explodes from this superb disc. White men singing the gospel-blues hybrid doesn’t come much better than this and sometimes you even catch an echo of Al Green in Farris’s vocals.
He builds on some fairly solid foundations, with classic material such as “Sit Down Servant,” and “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” (which both come with a New Orleans jazz coating) as well as Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
But this is no second-hand covers album. When Farris writes his own material, he shows a particularly strong blues tendency and knows how to pen a hook or three. “Devil Don’t Sleep” has a Buddy Miller-like guitar sound, while his memorable “Selah! Selah!,” like a composite of Dylan’s first two Christian albums, rides on a soulful, bluesy groove.
Getting anything like an authentic classic sound takes a whole team. All tracks but one feature backing singers, such as Ann McCrary, to give a genuine gospel flavour, while a variety of brass sections and some hot piano keep the disc in overdrive. When it finishes, you will want even more.
Salvation in Lights sweats gospel and spans the emotional range from joyous gospel to smouldering blues. This no-risk purchase has to be in the year’s top ten.
Label: INO /Columbia
Time: 14 tracks, 74 mins
Some artists are so good that you don’t want to hear their music. That is, you can be worried that one bad album is going to break the spell. Mike Farris had my album of 2007 with Salvation in Lights, and the idea of hearing it live in a loose, raw style made me wonder whether it would lose something magical that the studio produced.
Early in the first track, my fears were given roots. It sounded a bit rough and I thought that I was in for an inferior version of the studio disc that would taint both releases in my mind.
But by the time we reached the end of track four, adrenalin was getting me ready to give it a 5-star rating. It’s not unusual for me to dance in my kitchen, but this was making me do moves my legs haven’t managed in quite a while and putting a lot of utensils at risk of being kicked to the ground by accident. It made me remember that before my grandparents were dreaming of my parents, there were artists who were so good that people wanted to record them to preserve the memory. It is the performance that came before the recording, and Farris has the soul and fire of a real performer.
But with some of this material it goes deeper than vocal technique – and Farris has gritty gospel soul so embedded in his vocal chords that you probably couldn’t remove it without chopping the top half of his body off. The joy you feel with a song like “Can’t Sit Down” or “Mary Don’t You Weep” is deep in the gut, and it bursts to get out. With this live version of the latter, you can hear the intro preparing you for the song, and the excitement makes it explode into life.
As well as twists of style, like the oh-so-swampy sound of “Devil Don’t Sleep,” it’s a real joy to have some new material. “Good News” not only maintains the set’s shuffling rhythms and brassy New Orleans feel, but adds both a nifty organ solo and some cheeky “la-la-la-la-la-la-la”s. The CD bonus of “Green, Green Grass of Home” winds everything down beautifully.
While the near-legendary McCrary sisters add incendiary depth to Farris’ songs and some tasty variety when they do an à capella of “Dig a Little Deeper,” the only downside to this release is their over-stretched slot in the middle of “Take Me.”
If I had to choose between this and Salvation in Lights for a life lived on a desert island, it’s hard to know which I’d take; but with a belly full of soul and a good few extra minutes, this one is the prime contender.
The Night the Cumberland Came Alive
Label: Entertainment One Music
Time: 6 Tracks / 26 minutes
It may only be a small release, but to those of us who have been thrilled by Farris’s two previous solo efforts, this EP, where each track is distinctly different from the others, is a highly welcome bonus. It was motivated by helping those suffering from the Tennessee floods, and a portion of each sale goes to the Community Foundation.
Whether live or in the studio, Farris has been pretty intense in his gospel hollering. This time, the pace has definitely slowed down, even though the general style is largely unchanged. The gospel element remains – the McCrary sisters add their backing again – and the bluesy spirit is just as present, but it’s like a loose, stripped-back jam session, rather than one of his sweaty shows.
Two of the tracks would fit very well with the gospel timbre of Salvation in Lights, apart from their extra bluegrass layer. Once the two-minute vocal introduction is over, “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up” is an unhurried piece that compares a struggling, freshly-hooked fish with Farris’s own conversion experience: “I’m wrapped up, tangled up in Jesus, and I don’t want to get loose.” Its closing vocal hook is just one of the little details that make this EP so appealing. “Dear Lazarus” has gospel words and tune, but fiddle introduces it, solos and adds some colour on the way. It’s a smart combination, like adding chilli to chocolate.
The resurrection call of “Dear Lazarus” counters the way that Farris underlines the sense of mortality threaded through other tracks. The refrain, “It should remind you that we were born to die,” calls out from the country blues of the title track, one of his best and something that it is hard to tire of. “Mother Earth” is a song that does this so blatantly that it is with almost comic effect, using some labored piano bass notes and mournful brass: “Don’t care how great you are, don’t care what you’re worth, when it all ends up, you gotta go back to Mother Earth.”
The other blues highlight is the deliciously-arranged “Down on Me,” one that mixes the piano up higher, giving it a taste of New Orleans that is fully realized on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down,” where a horn section blows away.
There is plenty of time for solos from piano, guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and blues harp throughout this EP, recorded in one day at the Downtown Presbyterian Church with help from Byron House on bass and several members of Old Crow Medicine Show.
Less intense and with a wider palette to paint with, it may be short, but this is just as enjoyable as his other solo works. Like them, it goes straight to the gut and the spirit.
Label: Compass Records
Time: 10 Tracks / 43 minutes
From the beginning of this release, the essential, soulful sound of Mike Farris finds even more new colours to dress up in. He aches on the traditional “River Jordan” as he often does, but this time there are fresh sounds – mariachi horns and spaghetti western guitar.
The heart of this recovering addict’s story is the experience of grace. On “Jonah and the Whale,” he sings,
“I’m going to walk with the father in glory
Go on and tell my story
Tell the whole world about my victory”
Farris sings this with a Booker T. organ chopping underneath and, together with a Muscle Shoalsy rhythm section and a call-and-response of “hey hey hey”s, it all adds up to one of several tracks that feel like revisiting the very best of the ‘sixties.
In the UK, “How it Feels to be Free” is simply the theme tune to Barry Norman’s film review show, which is A Very Good Thing. Its rolling piano work – which is what comes through in the instrumental theme – underpins the tune and gives this track more of a jazzy feel.
Other songs celebrating faith include Thomas A. Dorsey’s “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow” and “This Little Light.”
But for all the celebration, Farris still remembers his pain and need for mercy. His aching take on Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” is one of the collection’s highlights; understated, but deeply felt in a Marvin Gaye sort of way.
Farris contributes two solo originals to this set. “Real Fine Day” is an upbeat song to the sounds of a Pops Staples / Buddy Miller style of guitar, while “Power of Love” feels bluesier.
Throughout the disc, the backing is immense. The horns are punchy, the funkiness of the guitar and up-front bass drives the music forwards and the backing singers’ wall of sound is tremendous. This time, there is even a break down that exposes a smooth spell of strings on “Something Keeps Telling Me.” With all the rising and falling, there is never any crowding out. Everything is just where it should be, and there are some beautifully tight endings.
In all this, credit to Farris, who has the producer’s role here. According to my pair of ears, remarkably, he has not made a bad track – let alone a poor album – since before Salvation in Lights.
He even takes a clunker like “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” gives it a rollicking New Orleans swagger and suddenly it is reborn.
What a voice, which passionately conveys both the experience of pain and the joy of release. This is, yet again, great stuff.