Saturday, April 2, 2011


I was asked to write a professional, yet personal story for the online magazine xfxthemag about the upcoming Chicago Blues Festival and my involvement with it. Please check it out at their site....Or read it right here, right now (go to their site anyways- it's pretty cool.)

June 12, 2011: Chicago Blues Festival, we're the headline act on the main stage. There are about 100,000 screaming people out there, and I'm playing the drums with the legendary Lonnie Brooks Blues Band.

I'm sitting on top of the world.


Really, this is the high point of my soon-to-be-storied career. The Chicago Blues Fest is arguably the biggest blues festival in the world. It's outdoors and it's free and it takes place downtown in Grant Park, smack dab in the middle of this big beautiful city of Chicago. It's massive, in every way.

Hopefully, rain is not in the forecast. Or is it? Who cares?

Chicago, my hometown, “the home of the blues.” Imagine it, surrounded by 99,999 other people in Grant Park, Lake Michigan and the lakefront glittering on one side, the glittering architecture of downtown all around you as dusk closes in, dancing and watching and listening to and, finally (whew), playing with great blues musicians in the great American city that embraced them.

Blues is raw and real, touching the deepest parts of your soul. It also makes you want to jump, shout, and, to quote B.B King, “Shake your boogie just a little bit.” Chicago was where all the blues musicians came, where a style and a sound honed from the cotton and soybean fields of the Mississippi Delta, rooted in pain and suffering, became joy and celebration. As America was beginning to rise from the Great Depression, the great bluesmen and blueswomen began their slow and steady journey straight north to Chicago, an exodus out of the richest poorest part of the U.S., the South. They poured north to Memphis and then to Chicago, and in Chicago, a new, electrified blues was born.

Some call it post-war blues.

But it's really called Chicago blues.

Chess records was in Chicago, at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. It was there, in the 1950's and 1960's, that the legendary, seminal, shouting, jumping, and stomping sounds of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon were recorded, giving national attention to the blues, the only true American music, the roots of rock 'n' roll and jazz.

Chuck Berry, the REAL King of Rock and Roll, cut many of his classic sides at Chess.

Chuck has played blues fest.

Chess was so important that even the Rolling Stones (best white-boy blues band ever) recorded there a few times, including their hit “Time is on My Side.” And they came to Chess, to Chicago, for that matter, because they knew that Chicago was where the magic happened and where all of the greats of the blues were.

Keith Richards has played blues fest too.

You know, I've played gigs all over the world. Some have been small clubs, some have been huge theaters, arenas and festivals.

I've done weddings, bar mitzvahs, and even a funeral (yes, really.)

Not only do I play blues, but I also play jazz, zydeco, country, and rock and roll.

I've done network television. I've done commercials. I've done theater.

I've shared the bill with the likes of B.B King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Taj Mahal, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, George Thorogood, John Mayall and Mick Taylor.

Bozo the Clown.

Did I mention that I've run off and joined the circus a few times?

The big shows were what you'd expect as part of the rock and roll fantasy. Big names, big stages, big sound, first class treatment all the way. Most of those gigs are festivals overseas. (Sadly, the best gigs seem to happen outside of the U.S. “Those people” really love American roots music.) A five-star hotel off the coast of, say, Portugal, overlooking the Atlantic directly off your balcony as you wait for your room service breakfast (for two, natch), compliments of the promoter. Playing in the piazza of a gorgeous historic Tuscan town under a summer night sky, sharing the bill with B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis. Drinking champagne and lounging by the sea between gigs at a weeklong blues festival on an island off the coast of Thailand.

"Man, I done enjoyed things kings and queens ain't never had," to quote the great, growlin', gravelly voiced bluesman Howlin' Wolf from the song “Goin' Down Slow,” a celebration of his life as he was slowly wasting away and dying.

On the flip side, and for sure, there is a flip side, I've had to play some of the worst of the worst, driving 50 or 60 miles to some dump in the middle of the highway in Cornfield, Indiana, with a motel to the right (hourly, no doubt), a gas station to the left, and I've got to change clothes in a piss-filled bathroom stall. The pay is, um, well let's just say that it was low; less than a man's wage. Plus, the gig starts at 1am, ends at 5am, and the audience, in general, pays their bar tabs by the month with their government checks. And, what's worse, I've agreed to do things like this more than once. Happily, even. (I'm such an idiot. Wasn't I just on stage in Paris two nights ago, eating filet mignon and swooning with the love of my life, who I had just met? Why yes I was. At least she came back with me. And stayed.)

Ah, the life of a pro musician. I don't know when I decided that that was what I was going to be, but I do know I was young. And dumb. And full of...never mind. But, I've never looked back since the moment I made that decision, because that's what I am. It's who I am: a musician. Music is everything to me, playing music is a high like no drug can give you.

Like I said, "...kings and queens..."

That said, I've never played the main stage for the Chicago Blues Fest, and I'm as stoked as stoked can be. I've been waiting my whole life to do this gig, and now I'm doing it (nothing like a 22 year overnight success.)

Since the festival originated in 1984, a year after the death of the great Muddy Waters, many legendary musicians have graced that stage: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, The Staple Singers, Albert Collins, Son Seals, Etta James, Otis Rush, Homesick James, and the great, great, GREAT Ray Charles. To now be in the same company with these giants, these heroes and mentors of mine, is nothing short of mind-blowing. I'm happy, proud, and humbled. What more is there, really?

I've been Lonnie Brooks' drummer for the last 10 years now; he's my boss and, more importantly, my friend. He's an interesting man and an interesting musician. His sound is a mix of his life, some Louisiana bayou and zydeco music, some Texas swing and country, some Chicago blues. You can trace the path he took to get to where he is. Throw it all together and you get the Lonnie Brooks sound. He's made more than 15 albums and he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame last year. He's a big, handsome man who looks much younger than his years and wears snakeskin boots and a big old cowboy hat.

There aren't too many players from the older generation left these days. Soon there won't be any of them, and this world will likely not exist anymore for me. A man of Lonnie's years and his experience has nothing but stories to tell, things to be learned. I've heard so many, sometimes I can't even remember. The most important thing I got from him, though, is this:

“Stay ready to keep from getting' ready.” And I do that. Every day, every gig and between gigs. I'm always ready.

But this gig, BluesFest, well, it's been a long time comin'. (Almost time to hit, yet?)

I was 18 when I joined my first “real” gigging band. It was called the Blues Influence. I got the job straight out of high school by answering an ad in a newspaper seeking a “drummer for a working blues band.” If the ad had been seeking a “drummer for a working country band,” I just might have become a country drummer.

But it was a blues band, with the late, great L.C Walker as lead vocalist. He saw the fire that I had in my soul (I certainly didn't at the time). Somehow, he knew before I did that the blues was the path for me to take. Not only did he teach me the blues, so to speak, but he taught me about how to be a pro, how to be a “playa” (a valuable skill), and how to be a man (an even more valuable skill). L.C. used to tell me, constantly, how life was nothing more than finding a way to entertain yourself until you die. Some people work jobs (straight or otherwise), some people take drugs, and some people play music. It doesn't really matter what you're doing, so long as you're doing it full-on.

The beginning of a great friendship and career.

We played together, we partied together, we listened to all sorts of great music together, we went on the road together. We did crappy gigs in crappy bars for crappy money, and we had a helluva time.

One of the crappy bars we worked was a legendary blues joint called The Wise Fools Pub, on Lincoln Avenue, on the north side of Chicago. We had the Sunday night slot for about three years, and it was there that I cut my teeth (while my underage friends sat/stood/drowned in the audience).

The Fools hosted some of the greats of the city: Junior Wells, John Lee Hooker, Albert King, and, you guessed it, Lonnie Brooks.

And, funny thing, the first “big gig” that I ever did was opening for Lonnie at the Wise Fools 22 years ago. Lonnie was bigger than ever in the late '80's/early '90's, packing 'em in everywhere. The king of Chicago, at the time.

And I was opening for him that night. What a freakin' thrill.

"Wouldn't it be cool if I had that gig one day," I thought.

So it goes...


  1. That would be Willie Dixon doing the "Kings and Queens" part in "Goin' Down Slow", Mike, but otherwise, great memoir.

  2. Proud of you Mike. Blues Fest is huge and you've earned your place on that stage. I'll be cheering for you, brother.

    Paul W