(This post was original posted on Monadnotes.com)
It was one of those way too familiar Friday nights this winter – weekend storm coming, better get out while you can. So I headed over to Sunflowers at the end of the dinner hour and was greeted by Michael Blake playing electric guitar. His selections included some rock, jazz and improvisation, played at that perfect volume where you can both hold a conversation and get a festive atmosphere. A fine finish to the end of a work week.
Michael plays guitar and sings in Turn It Loose, and plays solo jazz and rock for events. He has recently begun a jam band project, Old Friends, with drummer Chris Manzi, bass player Bob Lantz, and vocalist Dan Julius. He has recorded two solo instrumental CD’s. Last year he wrote two songs for Otis and the Elevators’ second release It Is What It Is. He plays six guitars, including a 1973 Gibson Les Paul custom, a 1959 Les Paul Replica built by local luthier Tom Hugel and a Fender Stratocaster. His musical journey began with public school music education, grew with guidance and collaboration from fellow musicians, and expanded with lots of help from YouTube. It is infused with just about every musical genre and Michael’s deep connection to the spiritual process of creating.
Michael has lived in the Monadnock region for most of his life and early on felt the power of music. “In second grade told my mother, ‘I feel like I am supposed to be a drummer’,” he recalled recently. “I just knew it in my gut.” With the support of his parents, he started taking drum lessons in fourth grade and sang in the church choir.
Since high school Michael has played in numerous bands from rock to gospel with a who’s who of the Monadnock region’s talented musicians: punk band, Linkocide, Grateful Dead cover band Hollywood Doctors, Blackjack Crossing, The Word, The Tolman Hill Band, and Chicken Head.
Then Michael decided he wanted to play guitar. “Ace Frehley from KISS was my superhero growing up – he is the one who got me wanting to play guitar,” said Michael, “and it’s been my passion ever since.” He bought himself a looper pedal so he could play rhythm with lead over it, and started playing for weddings and parties. He joined the band Vehicle with Jim Murphy, played with The Nines, and occasionally filled in with lead guitar for Tom Foolery Band.
In the mid 1990’s, Michael played with Straight Shooter, a country band with Gary Skillings. This was a high point in Michael’s musical career. “We played originals and covers,” Michael recalls. “We went to Grand Ole Opry for a contest and came in third place, winning a video and recording demo in Nashville.”
Michael joined funk / rock cover band Full Tilt Boogie with Fred Scozzari in 1996 when Straight Shooter disbanded. “Fred is a local guitar legend,” said Michael. “This band was the first in Cheshire County to have horns.”
Michael took a break from the bar scene for a few years to write gospel music and play with Christian rock band Shekinah. “This was one of the most incredibly talented bands I have ever been in. We played all over, including the Inside Out Soul Festival at Loon Mountain. But with the long distance traveling on weekends and a family at home, I just had to leave the group.”
When Michael writes a song, he begins with the lyrics. “I write in basic rhyme and try to sing it to come up with the melody,” Michael explained. One of the songs he wrote (as well as played guitar and sang) for Otis and the Elevators is Takin’ Control. “It’s about my wife leaving me and taking my children. I put myself in that world, with the emotion of being home alone when I wrote it.”
The other song Michael wrote for the album is Cuda Cruzin . “It’s a quick little blues number about a 1971 – Plymouth Hemi Cuda – my dream car.”
The musical projects Michael has enjoyed most are “where we all have input and work as a unit.” He particularly enjoys playing with Turn It Looseas he has the freedom to improvise on guitar, going beyond the music on original recordings of popular songs. Local musicians who have had the greatest influence on Michael include Dave Lake, guitar and pedal steel player in Straight Shooter and Gary Skillings. He credits Ian Wilson of Tom Foolery Band with helping Michael achieve a professional sound. “Ian has had a huge impact, especially with using dynamics to know when to bring the volume up and down,” said Michael. “He is the king of dynamics.”
For his solo gigs, Michael enjoys playing for the Keene Art Walk and at Sunflowers in Jaffrey. I asked about his song list: “I play “Amazing Grace” at each gig for personal reasons. It’s something I feel I need to do. I always get a huge reaction; it goes to the core of people whether they are Christian or not. And then I go into Bob Marley, and that gets a huge reaction too!” Favorite venues for performing with a band are Waxy O’Connor’s and the Italian Club in Keene, and Mole Hill Theatre in East Alstead.
At the end of our visit, Michael explained his love for music:
Music is such a passion. When I am playing lead guitar
I can feel the music coming out of me; I hit a certain
note and I get goose bumps. The music flows right out
without my thinking about it and you know it’s the right
note. I feel like this is my gift, my destiny.
This month, Turn It Loose plays at Route 63 Roadhouse on March 14, and at Waxy O’Connor’s on March 21. Michael is available for parties and events and offers reasonable rates. For more information about Michael, go to Michael Blake/Special Event Guitarist on Facebook.
Copyright © Discover Monadnock.