Michael Burks can sound so much like Albert King–from his keening guitar tone and serpentine string bends to the harmonic shapes of his improvisations to his gruff baritone vocals–he sometimes seems to be channeling the late Memphis master from the great beyond. But his new album, Make It Rain (Alligator), shows encouraging signs of individuality. For one thing, he’s coming into his own as a songwriter: on the lung-pumping soul-blues ballad “Don’t Let It Be a Dream,” one of three tunes on the disc he had a hand in, his lyrics (“Then I met you, seemed like a dream came true / Please, don’t let this be a dream”) and his sandpapery croon dovetail convincingly, making the song’s romantic ache feel genuine. He’s also begun to examine King’s trademark tropes in a fresh light: he might kick off a phrase with a precise replication of one of King’s best-known lines, but when he revisits the theme he’ll cover the same territory in a more complex pattern, his fleet-fingered flurries often intensified by distortion or aggressive picking. In Burks’s hands, the King Biscuit Boy tune “Mean Old Lady” recalls the blend of raw blues and stripped-down funk that characterized King’s Stax Records period, but with the cranked-up tempo and metallic guitar tone of contemporary blues rock. On Travis Haddix’s “Beggin’ Business,” he turns the distortion up and digs in for a slow-grinding 12-bar workout, and Sven Zetterberg’s “What Can a Man Do?” is a gospel-soul plea for salvation through earthly love, pushed heavenward by a soaring, ecstatic guitar break. And Burks delivers the title song–a searing minor-key ballad by Russell and Wagoner, about trying to love someone who’s mired in negativity–in his most plaintive moan (“Not a cloud in the sky / You’d still find a way to make it rain”), his solo spiraling claustrophobically to mirror his grief and frustration. Saturday, May 19, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy’s Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Saltzman.