It’s hard to forget my first visit to Toronto. I had never been anywhere so cold. I had never been on a tram, except maybe in Blackpool, and these yellow banners draped across the road with large black ‘X’s, imaginatively titled ‘crosswalks’, were something I found quite exotic back in the last week of 1992. The pubs were open extremely late and out of the nearest one, ‘West Side Johnny’s’, there came some inviting blues/rock which, being a ZZ Top fan, I had to check out. It turned out to be a group called Blue Texas, featuring a guitarist/singer called Michael Keith.
More than 20 years later I was back in the same city as a resident. West Side Johnny’s had long gone but here was the same performer, now solo, acoustic and heavily-bearded, starting up a gig just as the one I was helping out with was clearing up. He now looked like a member of ZZ Top but no longer sounded like one. What seemed to me to be a combination of clawhammer, Bert Jansch-style folk and Flamenco guitar techniques were being employed in some inventive renditions of blues songs and originals.
Michael Keith is to blues guitar what Keith Jarrett is to jazz piano. He is an extremely capable exponent of the art form but is always seeking to transcend it. So you won’t find him promoting himself as blues/rock guitarist and singer, even though he does these things impressively. His self-portrayal is more that of an experimental improvisor. The two recordings of his I have been able to get hold of are both free improvisation. The latest, ‘Arcanum Verbum’, is rendered mainly on a deformed baritone ukulele, inspired by the Kurdish mystic Nur Ali Elahi and is pretty sublime.
Yet it is as a performer where, despite many setbacks, Michael continues to excel. The world being what it is, the gigs he’s been doing have not been glamorous. But, luckily for me, some of them have been in my locality. A couple of occasions last year will live in my memory:
There was one gig, an open stage hosted by Michael in fact, when the room was completely full of people. They were having a work party and most of them were probably not aware there was music going on, let alone the benefits they could receive from listening to it. Whereas many performers would have soldiered on and played to a wall of noise, Michael just waited it out and started telling jokes. Then he started making up songs about some of the women in the audience. Once the crowd was boozed up and laughing, he played some great music and the night was a storming success.
On another night it was the response to comedy that was lacking. Michael was playing in a venue where attention is quite diffuse and he had done previous gigs at this place when his humour and originality had entertained the hardy souls that were listening but bypassed those who were half-distracted. So he just became a blues jukebox, rattling off ‘Key to the Highway’, ‘Sitting on Top of the World’, ‘Stormy Monday’ etc with terse snippets of information between the songs. It was as entertaining as any cabaret.