The lives of blues artists are often dotted with tragedy and personal demons. When the world lost Michael Packer to liver cancer in May, 2017, we lost a man with a unique take on the blues who had fought his demons in a fierce battle and emerged to tell the tale.
Even while undergoing treatment for the cancer that would eventually claim him, Packer continued to perform for the charities that impressed him. His participation in International Peace Day inspired many to pick up his mantle and channel their music into the cause.
His last album, “I Am The Blues” My Story Vol. 3, was released shortly before he passed. A short album, only seven songs, are filled with emotion and carried the messages he wanted to leave the world. He opens each song with a little story to set the scene, much the way an artist might at a live performance. These little vignettes connect us with him more so than if he just launched into the song.
His story about drummer Guy Powell being burnt from a generator explosion before a concert, and being whisked to a hospital, sets the stage for Flash Flame. His story for Yo Staten Island was ripped directly from the headlines that flashed across the country for months.
Packer is joined by a number of friends on this album. He himself plays guitar, Hammond organ, and vocals and he’s joined by Jack O’Hara on guitar and bass; Ed Jackson on bongos and vocals; Guy Powell on drums; John Beeton and Melvin Smith on bass; Adam Volk, Willie “The Touch” Hayes, and Mike Wheeler on guitar; Roosevelt Purifoy on piano; and Irving Louis Lattin and Alexis Suter on vocals.
Packer wrote four of the albums’ seven songs and all of the introductions. When someone else wrote the songs, it will be noted in the review.
The album starts off with a powerful sentiment, Blues For Peace. It’s a quiet song that tells the story of a man just looking for peace wherever he goes. He realizes that it’s up to him to do something, anything, to help the movement come to fruition. It’s a simple song that conveys a simple idea, and one that will be difficult to achieve.
The next song, Fields Of Sorrow, was written by Ed Jackson and Packer and tells the story of walking the fields where not terribly long ago, slaves tended the soil. The song uses simple orchestration and passionate vocals from Irving Louis Lattin to present this strong story. There is a history that we must not forget, and while it’s impossible to change it, we don’t have to continue to relive it.
Yo Staten Island was adapted from Born Under A Bad Sign by William Bell and Booker T. Jones. Packer had permission to do so and he used that inspiration to tell the story of Eric Garner, the man who was arrested for selling loose cigarettes and was choked to death by the police. Packer uses this incident to deliver his take on the violence that permeates the streets. He utilizes different musical styles from the other songs on the album, including a hip hop percussion line and even a rap. Traditionalists might not like it, but this is the kind of song that will attract other listeners.
Up next is Flash Flame which was written by Guy Powell about his harrowing experience of almost being burned to death by an exploding generator before a show. It’s got some funk and Powell, being a drummer gives it a helluva rhythm section workout. There’s some cool guitar in the song as well.
The longest song on the album, Chicago, clocks in at just over nine minutes and is a love letter to the blues of Chicago. Packer has been playing there for years and he’s recruited some of his friends to create an all-star line up. For straight blues, it’s the best on the album. The sound is sweet and crisp and you can feel yourself sitting in Buddy Guy’s Legends watching the band take us through some of the best blues in the city. Great song.
My favorite song on the album is Do It All Over, a story of loss and the hope for redemption. It’s just Packer and his guitar and it stands with the best of singer songwriter numbers. This could have been performed by the likes of James Taylor or John Prine, it’s that good. The song is sad, but it gives you hope for the future. How many of us have wanted to do it all over from time to time?
The album closes out with the autobiographical Mr. Packer. He tells the story of getting liver cancer after being sober for over 20 years and the doctors couldn’t do much due to the fact that he also had Hepatitis C. But he remained hopeful. This is a rocking little number and a good way to go out on a good time song. Keep hope alive…
There are no explosions on the album, no soaring guitar breaks that whip an audience into a frenzy. Just pure emotion and stories told by a master bluesman. The fact that he was able to complete this album despite the pain he was in due to the cancer is a testimony to his determination to tell his story up until the last possible moment.
Normally at this point I would tell you to check out websites, in this case, Packer’s is http://www.michaelpackerbluesband.com/, and tell you to be sure to look for them down the road. Obviously, that’s not going to be the case with Michael Packer.
Instead, I ask you to look at the man’s legacy and think what you can do to help spread peace during these troubled times. It’s never easy, and it’s going to be a long road to travel before we find that peace, but if we take those first steps, eventually we will get there.
Michael Packer believed it, John Lennon believed it, and it’s up to us to believe it as well.