Michael Packer,
I Am the Blues: My Story - Vol. 3
(Iris Music Group, 2017)

Although I Am the Blues is a very good album, it is also a very hard set to listen to; it is the last testament of a dying man, one who knows he is dying and wants to get a few things said before he goes.

Before we discuss the music, a little background is in order. Michael Packer was a New York singer and guitarist who, after serving his apprenticeship in the Greenwich Village clubs, broke through as a recording artist when he formed the band Papa Nebo, in 1969, which cut an album for Atlantic that went nowhere. Disappointed, Packer went out to San Francisco to regroup, played with George Thorogood for a while and fell in love with the blues. Returning to New York, he formed Free Beer, cut albums for Buddha and RCA, and toured with the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Dr. John, Johnny Rivers, Dr. Hook and others.

Packer might have been a good musician but he wasn't very good at success. Despite three albums making the charts, the band fell apart.

More bands started and folded. By the late 1980s, Packer had become an alcoholic drug addict and was homeless on the streets of New York. He was also a convicted felon, serving a year in Riker's Island, where he made a TV appearance as a musician in the HBO documentary, The Prisoners of Riker's Island.

By the time he got out jail, his career was finished. Still, he tried to rebuild it, going to Chicago where he met Honeyboy Edwards and got to accompany the master. By now he'd gotten straight but his luck did not change. He developed a terminal liver cancer, along with hepatitis C. Knowing he was dying, he decided to make a last trilogy of albums, a summing up of his life and career. This is the third and final volume of that trilogy.

In it, each song is prefaced by a spoken introduction, generally a personal anecdote, telling a story relating to the song that follows. The stories are more often than not tales of failure. The first one tells what happened when he tried to participate in a worldwide "Blues for Peace" demonstration that turned out to be, for him, another career disaster where everything went wrong. The stories are told in a weakened voice that reveals the extent of his illness.

The songs that follow, though, still have power. "Blues for Peace" is an acoustic, fingerpicked slow blues about the protest event, while "Yo Staten Island" brings the electricity, featuring Packer on Hammond organ rather than guitar. "Chicago" brings the full strength and magic of the electric blues of that city, while "Do It All Over," an acoustic lament, reduces back down to just Packer and his guitar.

I Am the Blues is a solid set of well played material but as the narration constantly reminds us, we are listening to a man in the process of dying in public. While Packer's is an act of courage and can inspire, that doesn't make listening more comfortable.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

17 June 2017

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