Mike Wheeler  

You Have to Know Who You Are

By David Whiteis

Chicago bluesman Mike Wheeler has been building a career for himself for over 30 years. He plays his blues with ease and an obvious joy in what he is doing.  As he says on the title track from his first album for Delmark in 2012, “I’m a self made man, and I made myself have the blues.” We take a look at this rising star of the blues world.

When Mike Wheeler plays the blues, he sounds like nothing so much as
a man who is happy to be where he is. His lyrics may take on the usual
themes of heartbreak, erotic obsession, and the vicissitudes of surviving
hard times, but through it all he makes it clear that to him, music is a
celebration of life.

That feeling is accentuated by Wheeler’s guitar style—if life is a feast,
then music is a smorgasbord. His leads, while rooted deeply in the blues,
are rife with influences adapted from some of our more innovative rock
soloists—ascents and linear explorations colored by curlicues, offshoots, and
sidelong jabs into unexpected harmonic and chordal thickets, as well as the
expected bluesy string-bends and blue-note wails. A similar eclecticism colors his band’s accompaniments, with their hints of hard-funk edginess and
power-pop grandiosity brightened by emotional exuberance and optimism
of spirit, an optimism that’s also reflected in Wheeler’s lyrics. “I think,
usually, songs reflect the person that writes them,” he says. “I’m an upbeat,
not ‘down,’ kind of person. I try to see the best in everybody, as opposed
to, you know, the world’s coming to an end, or something like that, or she
broke my heart, I hate her, I want to kill her—I ain’t into that.” But that
doesn’t mean he sugarcoats things; he is a bluesman, after all, and he’s
adamant about his dedication to honesty, both lyrical (“I figure that songs
should tell a story”) and musical (“making the notes mean something”).
Wheeler’s affirmative attitude has been a major impetus for him
throughout his career. It hasn’t always been easy; he didn’t get to record
under his own name for a major blues label until he dropped Self Made
Man (Delmark) in 2012, more than 20 years after he’d first begun to
establish himself as a first-call sideman, both live (“Man, I played with
almost a who’s-who in Chicago”) and in the studio (he has appeared on
albums and CDs by Big James and the Chicago Playboys, Cadillac Dave,
Cicero Blake, Omar Coleman, Joanna Connor, Linsey Alexander,
both Mud
and Joseph Morganfield, Nellie Travis, and others). But he insists he’s never
been daunted. “If you believe in what you’re doing,” he maintains, “you got
to stick with it. It’s an art, but you don’t develop it right off the bat. It takes
a while to get it.”

Stay tuned for new Delmark recordings featuring Mike Wheeler in 2021!


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