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Michael Charles: Testifying the Blues in Creston

All the way from Chicago: The Australian Blues legend takes the stage at the Tivoli

Barry Coulter

We’re going to come right out and say it. Michael Charles is a Blues legend in his own right.

The Australian-born musician, songwriter, guitarist and producer, with a prolific recording and touring career, is an inductee of the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame and friend of Blues giants from an earlier generation.

And he is taking the stage at Creston’s Tivoli Theatre, Friday, April 12. Going to light up the town.

Blues, perhaps more than any other music genre, has a direct throughline to its past. And that language developed by such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, et al, continues to speak loud and clear as each generation of Blues musician takes it and makes it their own.

“I can’t speak for every musician but for me it’s always a little humbling to be put into that genre,” Charles said in an interview. “We can go on and on about the legendary Blues players, but in my eye they’re the real deal. And guys like myself, we’re the students. We try to — not replicate — but to learn from these people. When these legendary musicians were doing their thing, they were introducing something brand new to the world musically. I feel like a student just learning from these people, listening to their music.”

“I’ve been lucky enough to meet people like Mr. Buddy Guy, and talk with him. And even back in the day, when I first came to the United States, meeting and playing with guys like Eddie Clearwater and Junior Wells — to me, I felt like this little kid back at school again. They had so many great stories to say and how they became who they came to be.

“Then I was fortunate to go on the road with the legendary Jimmy Dawkins for two years. Just travelling around, and spending time in hotel rooms, sitting in a vehicle going from town to town — the stories they would come up with …

“And now, when I’m on the road with my guys, I’m chatting away with stories that I went through, it just brings me back to what it was like to sit with these guys and listen to them. And now guys around me are doing the same thing.

“But I feel so fortunate to have met these people who brought this music to the world.”

Music is a living, organic thing. And while Blues has an iconic canon, a repertoire of songs and licks that have changed the world, music can’t stay stuck in the past. Blues is a music of personal expression. Charles, as well as playing a sizzling Blues guitar, contributes to that canon with his songwriting.

“I got lucky enough, blessed, to have the ability to write songs,” he said. “I still believe that new songs are what is important to the music industry. There are some great songs that have been written — thousands and thousands of magnificent songs that we’ve all covered at one time or another. But to feel the energy coming into a studio and bringing in one of your own songs and bringing it to life, to me that’s one of my biggest buzzes being a musician. The world can never have enough new material to listen to.

“I just hope that one day other up and coming musicians will play my songs. That’s the biggest honour you can have, I believe.”

The Blues is also a famously itinerant music. It’s where it gets its energy from, as a touring music born in small towns and rural places. It never gets old for Charles.

“I get buzzed just knowing that people want to hear what I do. I’m not even close to being tired of touring. I just love what I do, and I feel very blessed be able to do something that I have a passion for. What better life can you have? I’ve never woken up on a Monday morning, saying ‘aw hell, I gotta go to work.’ I don’t even know what that feels like.

“I’ve played music my whole life, and I’ve woken up every morning with this energy to get out of bed, pick up my guitar and start playing. To be able to do it in front of people is one of the greatest honours for any musician.”

Charles has lived in Chicago — Blues capital of the world — for the past 30 years. But growing up in Australia, the guitar become his close companion from an early age.

“The guitar for me was the start of everything. I can’t remember not playing guitar,” he said. “My Dad played guitar and taught me the first basic chords and what you could do with your fingers on the fretboard.

“I can’t remember a day not playing. But at the same time, I felt that it was normal. I grew up in my neighbourhood watching kids playing sports, getting into mischief … I was more of loner, that would just sit in his room, just strum a guitar and try and try master the craft.”

The guitar feels like the basic instrument to express Blues on, musically.

“I look at the original Blues, it all comes from people who didn’t have a lot of means,” Charles said. “A guitar was probably the easiest thing they could get to make music with. That’s what it sounded like to me, talking to all these great players.

“And now, us musicians will now pay thousands of dollars, looking for the ultimate guitar.”

With over 15 albums in his discography, Charles always has something new in the pipeline.

“I’m lucky enough own my studio, so I can just sit back and create. But I’ve had a lot of interruptions, because after the pandemic, I had to put a new band together. During the pandemic people changed their minds about what they wanted to do when the world started moving again. So I was put into a corner where I have to find new musicians.

“I’ve gone through quite a few changes, but now it looks like I’ve settled into having some really good musicians behind me again, some guys who are willing to go out and tour with me and be on the same page with me. So now I feel like I’m freed up again, so when I’m not on the road I can go into the studio and focus on a brand new album. I’m hoping to have a new album out in the next year, year and a half.”

Michael Charles is touring the Blues through Canada this month, as a power trio — with Damian Lopez on bass and Ryder Olle on drums — and making a stop in Creston’s Tivoli Theatre, Friday, April 12. Showtime is 7:30 pm