March 7, 2017 by 1888media
Somewhere tonight, Chicago singer-songwriter Mike Felten is stepping up on another stage. He has been doing this for fifty years.
The Illinois Entertainer proclaims him, “the real deal.”
He exclaims that the weathered Martin guitar in his hand is his shovel and that the old Harmony Sovereign waiting for the slide is his plow. He is a workingman; a Johnny Lunchbucket. According to Midwest Record Magazine, what he does is, “Unreconstructed freak folk.” A bit of blues, a hint of rock and a pile of billowy soul. All the influences forged in the tempest like a late night omelet at some ancient diner.
The stories overflow like a third cup of joe. Some names you recognize. Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Nelson Algren and Gene Autry. Maybe even a Paddy Bauler or a Hillary Rodham. Open mics when a John Prine got up and did three. Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips listened.
Some names you never heard before but some you’ll never forget. Short Pencil Lewis. Benny Peeps or Trailways Barkle shares his stage.
There are the places too. The hardscrabble neighborhoods of Chicago. The years in the copper country of Michigan, hauling your own water and cutting your own wood. All the long highway nights getting to the next gig, the next town. All the fleabag motels and character building one nighters at the K of C or some Elks Lodge. A thousand dive bars and a bunch of sit down theaters. Parking lots and farmer’s markets. Under the bridge and up in the ski lodge.
He sings to remember and sometimes to forget.
There are six albums. Coming March 17 is his latest rumination, Diamonds and Televisions. Bare bones on the telephone. It never seems enough. It is never complete even though the arc is winding down. Now is the time.
Folkways legend Bob Everhart tells us that “Woody Guthrie would’ve been proud”.
Mike doesn’t know about that stuff. It is just the shovel. It is just the plow.
He embodies the word “troubadour.” A singer/song-writer with hundreds of songs to his credit and a lot of living behind him.
Felten has been playing since the 1960’s. A veteran of rock, country and blues bands, Mike sat in Muddy Waters bedroom, had Buddy Guy show him around the blues clubs where Willie Dixon, Junior Wells and Mighty Joe Young, among others, were hanging out, and played folk gigs at places like the Fifth Peg and Orphans in Chicago, alongside guys like Steve Goodman & John Prine.
His never-ending tours see him go from playing shows in New York City to labor union rallies in Michigan to raucous country clubs in Dallas, playing for neo-punks and evangelical Christians. Mike is happy to play in your living room, concert hall, saloon, coffee shop or the back of your flat bed.
For three decades, Felten operated Record Emporium, one of the best record stores in Chicago, and semi-famous for hosting scenes in the movie Love Jones (Nia Long), the TV show Cupid, starring Jeremy Piven, and was the inspiration for the fictitious record store, “Championship Vinyl,” in the movie High Fidelity, which starred Jack Black and John Cusack.
While manning the emporium, Mike made his own music too. As a mid-‘60s teenager, he regularly rode a CTA bus from his folks’ North Side home down to the Old Town School of Folk Music, taking guitar lessons from Ginny Clemens and Jo Mapes. He later ran in the same circles and played open mics with fellow newcomers John Prine, Steve Goodman, and Bonnie Koloc.
It’s taken Mike a little longer than those legends to make his mark, but his skills as a troubadour are renowned. He plays an average of 100 shows a year, and his series of albums for his own Landfill label includes 2013’s acclaimed AKA Johnny Lunchbucket. Diamonds and Televisions pushes the stylistic envelope for the veteran singer-songwriter, who wrote every song on the set (“Seven Days A Week” is a collaboration with Bob Frank). This is the first time he’s utilized a full band in the studio, adding multiple new dimensions to his approach—which he admits can be a tad difficult to succinctly define.
“Victor Sanders, my guitarist and recording engineer on this album, calls it ‘Outsider Americana,’” says Mike. “I have so many influences. I’ve played in country bands. I’ve played in cover bands. I’ve played in blues bands and rock bands. Where does it fit? I don’t know. In my sets, I play Muddy Waters and Buck Owens and Smokey Robinson, and it doesn’t sound like any of those people.”
The title of this latest album unexpectedly presented itself during one of his frequent road trips. “We were down in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and there was a pawnshop across the street from this place we went into called Hamburger King. This abandoned pawnshop advertised ‘diamonds and televisions, cameras and stereos.’”
Echoes of Bo Diddley’s primal shave-and-a-haircut rhythm careen through the opening “It All Ends Here.” while “Statue Of Liberty” makes a very belated debut on record. “That song’s probably about 50 years old,” Mike notes. Rest assured he has quaffed a lot of “Gas Station Coffee” while driving from one distant gig to the next. “Bohunk’s Daughter” was inspired by the the lives of his Bohemian grandparents, “Get Lost” flat-out rocks, and a jaunty reading of “Mike’s Last Will And Testament” is actually cause for rejoicing. “Pa Kettle’s Bastard Son” pays tribute to one of Felten’s favorite long-ago movie characters. “I love Pa Kettle,” he says. “Not too many people know who he is.”
“Emma’s House” springs from a serious place. “Basically, the song’s about Emma Goldman, the anarchist. I never knew that she lived on Sheffield Avenue, over by DePaul University,” he says. “I’m writing about that experience of standing there and looking at a house that I’d walked by a thousand times, never knowing this was the place Emma Goldman got arrested, hauled in and beaten by the police.” The song sports a tinge of country. “Bob Long, the piano player, was thinking Floyd Cramer. When I wrote it,” says Mike, “it was more of a rock song. I was kind of feeling U2. But you never know where these songs are going to lead.”
Apart from 15 years spent in rural Michigan after he got married, Mike is a Chicago product through and through. His father worked at Lyon & Healy, a large downtown music store, and his mother sang barbershop harmony to her last days. Mike picked up a guitar at 15, inspired by the British Invasion as well as Woody Guthrie and Big Bill Broonzy, and soon joined his first band, the Bogus Risque Weeds (Randy Murray, the trumpeter on this CD, was their lead singer).
Mike eventually settled into a singer-songwriter mode, performing everywhere from the Fifth Peg, Orphans, and No Exit to the psychiatric ward at Illinois Masonic Hospital. “People couldn’t run away,” he wryly notes of the locked-down latter. “I used to do maybe two or three open mics every Tuesday night. And I would write songs for each one of them.” His current Chicagoland stomping grounds include Phyllis’ Musical Inn and the Buzz Café.
Mike’s still writing prolifically, still driving long distances, still the wandering troubadour with countless stories to tell and riveting songs to sing. “I like showing up with just a guitar, sometimes a microphone and amplifier, and doing my songs. So it’s kind of a troubadour thing,” he says. “Hopefully I’m getting better and better, and trying to get in contact with who I am and explain myself to the world.”
Some say we’re in the golden age of television. We are. It’s being broadcast coast-to-coast, a one-man station delineating the nation. New episodes of “Felten” are on the airwaves most nights. From the cockpit of anthropic, it shines bright, like a diamond.
3/12 – Detroit, MI @ Assembly Line Concert 4/Eastern Market
3/17 – Wilmington, IL @ Rustic Inn
3/18 – Lakemoor, IL @ Grandma’s Wine and Deli
3/24 – Chicago, IL @ Phyllis’ Musical Inn
3/25 – Aurora, IL @ Leland Legends
3/30 – Iowa City, IA @ Iowa City Yacht Club
4/17 – Chicago, IL @ Silvie’s
4/20 – Chicago, IL @ Phyllis’ Musical Inn
4/28 – Oak Park, IL @ Buzz Cafe
5/07 – Berwyn, IL @ Friendly Tap
5/19 – Jackson, MI @ Jackson Coffee Company
5/24 – Chicago, IL @ Phyllis’ Musical Inn
5/26 – Oak Park, IL @ Buzz Cafe
6/21 – Chicago, IL @ Make Music Chicago Fest
6/23 – Oak Park, IL @ Buzz Cafe
7/04 – Chicago, IL @ Phyllis’ Musical Inn
7/21 – Oak Park, IL @ Buzz Cafe
8/18 – Oak Park, IL @ Buzz Cafe
8/27 – Lemars, IA @ National Old Time Country & Bluegrass Festival
“Unreconstructed freak folk.” Midwest Record Magazine
“James McCandless with undertones of John Prine.” Chicago Folk Music Examiner
“Outsider Americana written in the style of Dylan, it’s distinctly original.” Music-Savers
“Jaundiced views of life very reminiscent of an early Bob Dylan.” Country Music Round-Up
“If you appreciate thought-provoking, heartfelt music with a message (think Dylan, Guthrie, Buckley), then this is your guy.” Yahoo