icon Jun 30, 2016
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“What you looking at Old Man? Wasn’t silver part of your plan” – MFR / Old Man (2016)

At some point everyone asks themselves the question “What do I want to do when I grow up?”  For most people, this is a question they’d love to have answered as quickly as possible.  Start a career, start a family and gradually improve the length and quality of your vacations.  A comfortable and predictable path is the American Dream for many.

Musicians tend to have a little bit different relationship with the question of “growing up.”  Even if they are, in some ways, on a parallel path of family and career to their friends, every time they find a new chord, start a new band or write a new song, it comes with a renewed feeling of possibility and implied permission to kick the can of “big questions” down the road just a little bit.

Music fans in mid-Michigan have, in many ways, watched Michael Robertson grow up.  He first introduced himself to the area with unfortunately tight pants and unnaturally advanced guitar chops as part of power trio Mr. Hyde nearly 30 years ago.  Over time, his musical identity has shifted, from those hard rock beginnings, through a self-described “Simon and Garfunkel period” with brother Scott Robertson to a ten year run with Scott, Rosco Selley and Keith Carolan in the legendary “Phish by way of Wilco” outfit, Maybe August.

It's a musical journey that has taken a number of interesting turns.  For instance, when you score a slot with Mr. Hyde to open for Joe Satriani, you might start to think you have this thing licked.  On the other hand, when you and your brother take your first “great” original to a singer / songwriter contest in Atlanta, only to meet a teenaged John Mayer and Clay Cook (Zac Brown Band) in the first round, you might start to think you don’t.   Luckily, it isn’t just drummers with short memories.  For a guitarist and songwriter, there is always another chord and always another situation that ought to be documented in a song.  It’s all part of the story.

With the release of his first solo album, “All My Stories,” Robertson is opening a new chapter to his musical biography.  Recorded at Reed Recording Company in Bay City with the assistance many of his musical collaborators from over the years, it represents the album everyone knew he could make. 

Everyone except Robertson, that it is.

“I’d never really thought of myself as a solo artist,” said Robertson when we recently had a chance to sit down over an overdue cup of coffee. As he put it, “I guess I was kind of a late bloomer.  Part of it is when your brother is Scott, you don’t have a lot of incentive to step up to the microphone and sing.  I was just going to be the guitarist.  I always thought this great lyricist would show up and we would do it that way.”

Little did he know, but the lyricist he was looking for had been staring at him in the mirror he used to shave in.  Sharing singing and songwriting duties with Scott and Rosco in Maybe August, Robertson’s musical identity really began to come into focus for the rest of us.  He wasn’t just a guitarist anymore or even just a musician.  He was now an artist.  The hard work of being a semi-professional musician wears a lot of people down.  Instead, the grit and grime that comes with that many gigs polished him into truly unique presence in our regional musical scene.

He was particularly quick to mention the influence of two people in his development as a writer and vocalist. “Keith Carolan was always very supportive of me in singing and writing new songs.  He always wanted me to push myself.  Also, Bob Hausler was a big influence.  The Songwriter In The Round showcases he used to do gave me a lot of confidence that I could be that kind of performer.”

Over time, these skills began to come in handy.  Though he is still stayed busy with the Robertson Brothers Band and as a guitarist / duo partner with Honesty Elliot and her band Honesty and Liars, he was starting to find good opportunities in playing solo.

As Robertson described, “You find, at a certain point, everyone’s life kicks in.  You all have families, jobs and other priorities.  It is hard to keep a band together.”

“I was getting more opportunities to play solo, but when they asked me to send in some music samples, all I had was the Maybe August stuff and it was 10 years old.  It was when I was helping Rosco with the album he recorded with Andy Reed that I started to think ‘hey, I could do this.’  It just felt very comfortable.”

In my humble opinion, it was a very solid decision to follow this hunch. So, when you purchase “All My Stories,” what exactly are you getting yourself into?  Admitting all bias, as I know Mike and consider him a friend, I would say you are treating yourself to perhaps the best original album to come out of this area in years.

“All My Stories” has it all.  Carefully constructed lyrical sketches of people and places you feel like you know.  Clever rhyme schemes and twists of phrase.  Wailing guitars.  Tight ensemble playing.  And harmonies lacking only one voice … yours.  (Oh, for the Maybe August fans reading this.  I asked the question and the chord Am7/G does make a couple of cameo appearances on the disc. It’s about time, huh?)

The disc seamlessly shifts styles.  A tune like “The Highway Song” might fit neatly on a Jason Isbell platter, while “It’s Not What You Think” and its soaring slide guitar evoke “Lipstick Sunset” era John Hiatt. 

A song like “Blame It On You” would have sounded perfectly at home on FM radio in 1977, sitting right between Andrew Gold and Pablo Cruise.  “Shut Up And Go To Sleep” is a rousing rocker about a completely reprehensible character that it driven by a dynamic Bill Silverthorn drum part.  It is recommended that you put some sunscreen on your face before listening to the song, as Rosco will try to blister it off with one of his finest recorded harmonica solos.

Aside from the high standard of musicianship displayed across the disc, two things really stand out to me.

First, if Robertson didn’t already answer to the perfectly descriptive moniker “MFR,” I might just float the idea we give him the nickname “Mr. Bridges.”

For those unfamiliar with the musical term, the “bridge” of a song is when the melody briefly takes a different turn and the writer lays out an unexplained part of the story.  These are often high points to the song that lead into a solo or another round of a chorus that you suddenly understand better than you did the first couple of times through.

Robertson’s ability to build a bridge within a song is one of the aspects that makes this set so dynamic.  It is what separates an artist and professional quality writer from the rest.  And in this case, the bridges are also the platform that Robertson, Reed and their band of singing friends give the listener a true treat for the ears in some of the best harmony vocals you will ever hear.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with this circle of musicians.  Reed has a growing reputation in the industry as one of the best at engineering and producing vocal harmonies.  When Robertson started bringing in vocalists like his brother Scott, Honesty Elliot, Mike and Scott McMath of Empty Canvas and Selley, there was only going to be one potential outcome and that was something that sounded excellent.

When I spoke with Reed about the album, he said “It really is easy when someone brings you good songs.”  He also added “People shouldn’t be surprised by this disc.  Mike has been this good for a long time.” 

While Reed spoke glowingly about the opportunity to work with so many talented vocalists on this project, he particularly singled out Elliott.  “It was amazing to work with someone that good.  I could just ask her to place a note wherever I wanted it.  It was like having another instrument.”

Even Robertson will admit in a weak moment to liking what he hears.  “I have to say I am proud of the album.  Not because I think it is awesome or anything.  More because I am glad to show old guys can still do it.”  That was followed by one of the self-deprecating laughs that always fill a conversation with Mike.

The other thing that is a common thread when you talk to Robertson is that a conversation about music is usually also a conversation of about friends and family.

Aside from those mentioned already, friends who make guest appearances on this disk include “A-Listers” like Mike Thomas on piano, Ryan Fitzgerald on bass and Jim Alfredson on organ, while Donny Brown, Mike McHenry and son Connor take turns on drums. 

Music is very much a family affair for Robertson and not only for how closely he has been identified with Scott over the years. His daughter Amanda, whose spirit was captured in the Maybe August song “Amanda Lynn,” first showed interest in songwriting when she found a stack of her dad’s manuscripts and asked what was up with all the rhymes and feelings and stuff.

Robertson recently returned to Reed’s studio to record a version of the Cat Stevens song “Father and Son” with sons Connor and Benjamin, fine young musicians in their own right.

When considering the body of accomplishment that Robertson has achieved both as a musician and a family man, it actually is a little odd to hear him say “I finally feel like I found the direction I was supposed to go,” as if he got to this point by pure accident.  It is one of the other things that plays into the world of a musician.  Sometimes you live through an experience, but you don’t really come to understand or believe it until you sit down and write the song.  It’s one of those vocations where you tend learn stuff by trying to explain it to other people.  That automatically comes with a little bit of a time lag in recognizing exactly what has transpired.

What has happened here, though, seems pretty straightforward to me.  Michael Robertson looked in the mirror one day and saw a grown man looking back at him.  And then he went out and wrote an album about it.  Because he is one of the best musicians this area has produced in this generation, it is a simply a fantastic piece of work.  Even if it takes him awhile for him to agree with that sentiment, I hope you join me in telling him just how glad you are that this collection of songs got made.  As musical stories go, this one is a classic.

“All My Stories” is available as a CD or download from Bandcamp, CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon and you can find it on Spotify.

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