October 20, 2020 by 1888media
He’s been accused of trafficking in “Outsider Americana.” Perhaps a better handle for Mike Felten’s highly distinctive musical approach would be “Chicagoana.” The Windy City is deeply and inexorably ingrained in the veteran singer-songwriter’s mesmerizing musical odes, right down to the names of streets that he’s wandered down and the shady characters haunting them in decades past. Mike knows where all the bones are buried and he’s not shy about letting us in on the secrets, blending folk, blues, and rock influences to spread the news.
Even in the middle of a pandemic, Mike’s muse hasn’t deserted him, although Fast Mikey Blue Eyes, his sixth studio CD for his own Landfill label (2017’s roots album of the year, Diamonds and Televisions, was his previous release), was nearly completed when the virus hit. “I started writing songs, and wound up with about 30 of them,” he says. Only a dozen made the cut for the CD—11 of Felten’s own making and a very personalized revival of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s immortal “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”
A wandering troubadour in the best possible sense who routinely hopped in his car and toured nationally until COVID-19 stilled the circuit (“I think I played 150 shows last year,” he says. “This year it’s probably about 30 or 40.”), Mike is the embodiment of the working-class Johnny Lunchbucket that he named one of his previous albums after. Apart from a dozen years spent in Michigan just after he got married, Felten’s made Chicago his home his entire life. “I’m a Chicago boy, so a good percentage of my stories are of Chicago,” he says. “Most of ‘em.” For 30 years, Mike owned Record Emporium on the North Side near where he grew up, a landmark store where music was both sold and played live and scenes for several movies were filmed.
For Fast Mikey Blue Eyes, Mike recruited some heavy hitters to join him in the studio. Harmonica wizard Corky Siegel and pianist Barry Goldberg were key players in the city’s blues boom of the mid-‘60s, when young white kids joined the city’s veteran bluesmen onstage for some genre-shifting artistic cross-pollination. “They sounded real good,” says Felten. “Corky, I’ve known off and on. I booked him on what might have been one of the first outdoor festivals in Chicago in 1970, when I was at Central YMCA. We had Buddy Guy too, so that was a pretty good festival.”
Siegel and Goldberg grace the rowdy “Three Drinks In,” an anthem about two-fisted drinking and a bar tailor-made for indulging. Barry also pounds the 88s on “Detroit Woman” (having traveled it many times, Felten knows the route between the Windy City and the Motor City intimately), while Corky plays on “A Girl Walks Into A Bar.” Another top Chicago blues harp ace, Mervyn “Harmonica” Hinds, wails on four other numbers. “When we had the store, he would come in on Saturdays and we would watch him play a set, and he would play a couple hours,” says Mike. “He blew me away too.”
Add rocking drummer Brad Elvis and some of Mike’s favorite sidemen (keyboardists Jamie Wagner and Bob Long, bassist Pete Mazzeri, and drummer Gary Landess), and you have a cast tailor-made to provide the supple, driving backing his stripped-down approach demands.
Felten reveals plenty of himself along the way. “2302” is the street address on Roscoe Avenue where he grew up. “I graduated grade school from there,” he notes. “Dead Old Girlfriend” gets personal. “I had the misfortune of having an old girlfriend pass away,” says Mike. “I was thinking about that, and thinking of all the things we had gone through.” The poignant “Where The White Lady Lives” deals with Chicago’s migratory population and sad history of segregation. “I’d seen how the neighborhoods changed,” he says. “We asked directions, and a woman on the street said, ‘It’s down there where the white lady lives.’”
Then there’s “Homan Avenue,” a nod to the less admirable endeavors of Chicago’s police department. “I wanted to bring up about Jon Burge and Two Gun Pete–the legends we grew up with,” says Felten with irony, considering he suffered injuries at the hands of the cops that required 100 stitches to heal during the DNC protests of 1968. On a more contemporary note, “Y’all Are Guilty” addresses the Black Lives Matter movement and recent travesties such as Trayvon Martin’s killing. Mike also introduces us to “Godzilla Jones.” “It’s more or less a kind of a depression, trying to deal with the bad times of everything,” he explains. “You’re out there dancing with Godzilla Jones, trying to beat that down.”
The disc closes with the evocative “Like Listening To Charlie Parker,” a seven-minute stream-of-consciousness vamp. “That’s been a phrase I’ve had for a while. I kind of combined a couple of things about where you can grab music and feel good about it. And listening to Charlie Parker in the afternoon kind of takes the blues away,” he says. “I get phrases and I write ‘em down, and they kick around. And then you go back to them when you need something, or something to tie it together that seems to fit.”
Even the album’s title derives from personal experience. “Fast Mike came from the pool halls, because when I was shooting pool at Roscoe Billiards Academy over at Roscoe and Seeley, that was a time with The Hustler, Fast Eddie Felson,” says Felten. “I had blue eyes, and people would comment about that. And Mikey’s been my nickname for awhile.” Was he good at shooting stick? “No,” replies Mike. “But hanging around I’m good at!”
Felten did a fair bit of hanging out at local bars during the latter half of the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, playing his music wherever he could at a time when the folk scene was booming. “I started taking lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music when it was on North Avenue. I started writing basically in high school,” he says. “I started playing the open mics, and one of them was at the Fifth Peg. John Prine was doing the same thing as I was. Steve Goodman I remember at Orphans and Somebody Else’s Troubles and those places on Lincoln Avenue, and the Bulls. They were just around, part of the scene—guys I could look up to and like. It was a way to get into what they were doing.”
It took a little longer, but now Fast Mikey Blue Eyes has joined their ranks, carrying on the honorable tradition of the roving troubadour with a rough-hewn working-class attitude and his guitar always close by his side just in case that elusive muse strikes unexpectedly.