Album Review

The Long-Awaited Return of Mike Farris

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It’s been awhile since “The Experience” has made a full-length record, so I was very excited to receive an email from Compass Records that not only did they sign a new artist, but that a new album was in the works. If you were lucky enough to get inside Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley back in October of 2008, you would know where this is going. I was there for a showcase that featured Peter Bradley Adams and local favorites The Coal Men. But, between the two acts I came to see, the place became packed to the rafters as Mike Farris took the stage and delivered an electrifying set backed by the Roseland Rhythm Revue -- a crack band featuring a horn section and gospel chorus. Afterward, the place literally emptied out to the point where the unfortunate band that followed Farris played to about 10 people. It was like a hurricane had just hit the place, hence The Mike Farris Experience.

At the time, I never heard of this former leader of the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, who scored a Top 10 hit with “Shakin’ The Blues” in 1994. A former member of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Double Trouble band, Farris dealt with chemical and alcohol dependency, which stemmed from being on the road playing bars and clubs. But he found salvation in the timeless spirituals of struggle and redemption. His critically acclaimed record Salvation in Lights garnered him an Americana Music Association New/ Emerging Artist award in 2008, with songs like “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Sit Down Servant.”  His follow-up album, Sunday Night Shout, continued Farris’s path of mixing genres with a heavy dose of gospel  to create a unique sound. Shout! Live recorded at the Station Inn received a Dove Award for Best Traditional Gospel Album from the Gospel Music Association in 2010.

Just when his career looked like it was ready to take off, the dark side reappeared as Farris become addicted to pain medications. A new record that was in the works in 2011 was put on hold while he went into rehab.“I’d been working on the record before my recovery, and then there was a pretty huge delay,” he explains, “and I had to back up, take time to grab the ground, to re-acclimate, to learn how to live now, truly sober for the first time since I was a kid.”  With the help of support groups at AA and NA, he finally began to uncover the root of the pain within. It’s not easy laying all your cards on the table, but through the strength of others that have walked the same path, Farris took the necessary steps of perseverance, eventually making his way to what he describes as that fertile ground of finding a new identity as a servant, first as a man but also as an artist.

Thankfully, the drought is over. Farris is set to release Shine for All the People on September 16, 2014.  Produced by Farris with the help of supporters via Kickstarter, the all-star cast includes guitarist Kenny Vaughan, Kevin McKendree on keyboards, Dave Roe along with Michael Rhodes sharing bass duties, and Derrek Phillips on drums. The horn section is led by Jim Hoke on sax and clarinet, while Steve Herman plays trumpet on several tracks. Strings performed on the Mary Gauthier-penned “Mercy Now,” and one co-written by Farris with C.J. Johnson and Brigitte DeMeyer titled “Something Keeps Telling Me,” were beautifully played by Austin Hoke and Sam Rhodes. Layered on top of all that like sweet butter icing are the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Gayle Mayes and Angie Primm.

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If there was such a thing as fantasy music, one brother that would be high on my draft board would be Mike Farris.  He is out front on the ten-track release and his vocals are like the 12th instrument on the record. Farris comes out blazing hot displaying his vocal range with the traditional gospel-laced “River Jordan”.  A funky “Jonah & The Whale” is followed by a New Orleans-flavored “Sparrow” that will have you singing from the pews, as will “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow." Two original compositions are the R&B-flavored “Real Fine Day” and the bluesy “Power of Love,” which delivers a message of survival and gratitude. 

“My music has always been first and foremost for the downtrodden, the wayward…people who’ve had to go up the rough side of the mountain” laments Farris.“Even when it’s upbeat and inspiring, there’s always been an element of pain, because truth be told, we’re all flawed. Not everybody knows it, but we all are.”

The final two selections really tell the tale about Farris’s journey to the end of the tunnel, as the radio-friendly pop single “How It Feels to Be Free” and “This Little Light” rock to close out the disc.

So where will I be on September 16?  Well, if I would be home in Akron, I’d be heading to Square Records to get my copy of the new album.  But, as luck would have it, I’ll be in Nashville living the dream at the Basement (below Grimey’s New & Preloved Music Store). Farris will also be returning there on the 20th as part of AMERICANARAMA VII, the store’s annual all-day concert festival party in the back parking lot.  I couldn’t think of a better way to kick-off this year’s Americana Music Association festivities than to celebrate the release of Shine for All the People with Mike Farris & the Roseland Rhythm Revue. It will be an evening of toasting the return of “The Experience” while shedding a few tears of joy into my glass.

Thanks Jay.  I knew nothing about Mike until a public radio friend referred me to his performance on Bluegrass Underground on the local PBS station.  Mike blew folks away in April 2013 at the Hillside Album Hour portion of Merlefest, singing lead vocals on most of the songs from BEFORE THE FLOOD (Dylan/Band) over a 2 1/2 hour period with the Waybacks and friends backing him up.  You can google all 9 high-quality You Tube video clips of the performance.