Live Performances Review

Espoo Festival
Heikki Saluso

  At the end of April this year April Jazz celebrated its 20th anniversary in my hometown of Espoo, Finland (  One of the top performers at the festival was a frequent visitor to our shores, the ever-friendly Mr. Mighty Sam McClain, who again came up with a great and energetic performance.  Should he come to your neighborhood, don’t miss the opportunity to witness a great show.  I reviewed Sam’s latest CD, Betcha Didn’t Know (on Mighty Music 102), last year and found it more varied than its predecessors.  Produced and arranged by Sam and Pat Herlehy and featuring accustomedly real live instruments with a strong horn section, there are four tight funky chuggers this time and three songs from the past (What You Want Me To Do, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be and Hold On To Your Dreams), which have been rearranged.  Sam also introduces some jazz elements and even rap, by Jesse “Apesh” Lannoo, but my personal favourite is a ballad, a pretty love song titled Just Wanna Be.  Sam is still looking for a nationwide and worldwide outlet for his record.
  Sam: “I recorded that CD in 2004, in September-October, just before I went to Russia and Turkey.  I’ve been sitting on it.  That’s why it’s not released yet.  I’ve been shopping this record around trying to get a bigger and better deal, trying to find somebody to really push it and promote it.  I can’t do it.  I don’t have the money.  I went in and recorded it.  I spent something like 35,000 dollars.  I have invested in this CD already.  I had 3,000 copies printed up.”
  The word about the quality of the CD gets around, and Sam has been contacted a few times already with the latest call coming from Nashville.  “I’ll be meeting with the Sony people in Nashville.  The people, who are putting some money in it, are going to have something to say about the content of the CD, of course.  And I’m going to let them say what they have to say, because they are putting some money behind me.  They told me they love it.  It fits right into what they’re doing.  Sony is creating another small label.”
  (One month later, at the end of May, Sam already had some good news to tell.  “Our visit to Nashville was fantastic!  I will be signing a recording contract and a publishing contract for my catalogue of songs.  The label is A&R, Inc.”).
  In the past Sam was known to deliver also some touching country & soul songs - which seem to return to favor these days – and they are still an option in his repertoire, but today his artistic goals are not necessarily only in that direction.  “As an artist I grow, and I’ve grown some.  My music has grown some.  People, who are my fans, either have to grow with me, or they have to get off the train.  I’ve noticed that artists, who had a whole bunch of fans with them, when they decided to do something a little different, a lot of the fans fell off the wagon.  They didn’t want to see him change.  I’m not that way.  I change.  If my fans can’t change with me, God bless them – I see them in the next life.”
  Sam is positive about the future of the music he does.  “Soul is on its way back.  That’s what I’ve been fighting for, because I’ve always fought against people trying to make me a blues singer, because I’m not a blues singer.  I sing blues, but I’m more or less a soul singer.” 
  “In today’s rhythm & blues I hear some stuff I like.  In hip-hop I hear a lot of positive stuff, but there’s also a lot of negative stuff.  It’ll be always like that.  Every generation brings on a new thing.  We better get used to accepting that.  I know some negative people, who are everyday working people.  They beat their wife, they are mean to their kids, they call women whores and bitches; hip-hop is just expressing the way it is.  In hip-hop they share what they know, what they hear, what they see in the neighborhood.  That’s all they know, until they get shown something else.  Some of it is good, some of it is bad.”

  “As I said, soul is coming back a little.  The world keeps going around in circles.  That’s why I’m not too concerned, not too worried, because I know my time is coming.  God has not given me this voice for nothing.  Now I can sing anything I want.  I can sing country, gospel, hip-hop, blues – anything I choose to sing.  I didn’t give me this voice, so my voice is dedicated to God, first and foremost.”  (Our in-depth Mighty Sam story appeared in the # 3/98 printed issue of Soul Express.  


Mighty Sam McClain

" One of the thrills of my life was singing with Bobby Bland three years ago, " says Mighty Sam McClain. " I’ve always admired the man. I patterned my singing on him — getting the big voice to come up from way down in the belly. To have him acknowledge me by asking me to join him on stage was such an honor. I thank God for that. "
McClain treasures his photos of that August day when Bland, who was already a major hitmaker in the ’60s when McClain was just beginning his career, invited him to the stage at the Portsmouth Blues Festival. Their duets under the summer sun were nothing less than an epic event — a pairing of two of the finest traditional soul and blues singers alive.
But, hey, even respect and admiration have their limits. Since McClain released his latest CD, One More Bridge To Cross, on his own Mighty Music label a month ago, his album has been running neck and neck with Bland’s new Blues at Midnight (Malaco). " I’ll see a radio station’s chart and one week he’s #1, " says McClain. " The next week it’s me. Then he’s got it again — and then it’s me. In the Living Blues charts, we’re battling for position and I’ve got #5. This has happened before when we’ve both put out albums, and I’ve always said, ‘Let Bobby get it. He’s been at this a lot longer than I have. He inspired me; he deserves it; give it to Bobby.’ But not this time. This time I want to beat his ass! "
And McClain, a Louisiana-born singer blessed with the kind of rich-toned, towering voice and chops that once-great American independent record labels like Stax and Atlantic were built upon, may succeed. After all, he’s worked his own ass off since the late ’80s rebuilding a career that crumbled the first time around. He entered the national music scene in 1966 with a cover of Patsy Cline’s " Sweet Dreams " that scored on the R&B charts and took him to Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. Then he spent two decades coming to grips with his life and his art, battling alcohol, homelessness, and failed relationships before at last finding himself. Beginning with 1993’s Give It Up to Love,

McClain has released a series of first-rate albums that have won him a strong international fan base and enabled him to put a series of unhappy dealings with record labels behind him by taking matters into his own hands.
" On the previous albums, I had two days to record the whole thing, " he explains. " There were no overdubs. It was all live. If something wasn’t quite right, I was told there wasn’t enough money to go back and fix it. Then the labels would hardly buy any ads, and they’d just mail the CDs out and not be promoting them. For One More Bridge To Cross, I spent 10 or 12 days in the studio over two months and got everything to sound the way I wanted it to. "
And that’s damn good. McClain’s vocal performances are gripping as ever, whether he’s essaying the pure gospel number " Open Up Heaven’s Door " or laying down raw phrases on a funky shuffle like " If It Wasn’t for the Blues. " Preparing for the album also involved some house cleaning, but his new horn section is as tight and sharp as the players one hears on Al Green’s classic Hi Records sessions. Guitarist Chris Tofield also does a stellar job, with a sharp, flexible tone that ranges from traditional weeping blues lines to the Santana-like phrases of " What’s Your Name. "
McClain brought in a female backing vocalist, Conchetta Prio, for the first time, and the Boston-based veteran of commercial sessions gives him perfect support. Thanks to skillful overdubbing and her grasp of harmony singing, she’s a one-woman choir of angels on the sacred numbers that have increasingly become a part of McClain’s calling as a songwriter, and an earthy female yin to the yang of his masculine presence on the secular tunes.
Now based in Epping, New Hampshire, the 60-year-old belter is pleased that One More Bridge To Cross is getting the kind of marketing campaign he’s always wanted for his albums. Of course, he and his wife, Sandra, are responsible for it, supervising their small team and doing much of the work themselves, from mailings to radio to follow-up calls to bookings. McClain can afford to do this thanks largely to the success of " New Man in Town, " which found a home on Ally McBeal and has since been licensed to a number of corporate clients, including a European bank, for ads.

Reflecting on his career, he says, " It’s been a lot of work and a lot of bullshit and a lot of hard times and some good times, but it’s all been worth it to get to this point. At 13 years old, I left home with nothing but my own hurt and my pride, and now I’m in charge of my music and my business and my life and I have a wonderful woman to share it with and a lot of great people helping me. I thank God for all this every day."


Toronto Star Review


If you can imagine actor James Earl Jones cast as a benign Baptist pastor negotiating a jagged song line between prayer and profanity, between the glory of spiritual salvation and the seductive delights of carnal love, you'll have some idea of the effect 60-year-old Louisiana gospel soul veteran Mighty Sam McClain created Sunday night at his debut Toronto appearance on the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival's main stage in Nathan Phillips Square. Dressed in a full length white mourning coat, white, high-collared shirt and waistcoat, magnificently bald and menacingly tall, McClain held court for a solid 90 minutes, serving up a mixed bag of testifying sermons, songs of praise and gratitude, blues-tinged gospel refrains, soulful ballads about love aroused and love thwarted, and even some rock-hard funk. It was a riveting performance by a master at the very top of his game. He was backed admirably by a tight and flexible seven-piece band (three horns, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards � all white guys dressed in black) that stylishly worked into the set every subtle nuance and inflection in the soul survivor's groove book from A-Z, ranging in intensity from a sexy whisper to a mighty roar. If Toronto's not all that familiar with McClain � the 483 tickets bought for this performance left the big tent more than half-empty � this veteran's rich voice and powerful presence moved the crowd like an elemental force. From the Big Joe Williams-inspired rocker "If It Wasn't 4 Da Blues" and the defiant tone in the soul hymn "New Man In Town," to the plaintive sob that made the funereal hurtin' ballad "Why Do We Have To Say Goodbye?" so memorable � Al Green might have taken lessons from this man � and the tough, guttural baritone that powered the finale, an extended soul version of the Doobie Brothers' 1973 hit "Long Train Runnin," McClain moved through half a dozen genres with ease and confidence, and around the stage as if it were a confining cage whose boundaries he might easily have broken. In fact, it was his earnest commitment to the central idea and character in every song that carried the show forward, and dispelled any lingering ghost of the promising Sam McClain of the soul-addled 1960s who, after an unhappy childhood at the hands of a destructive stepfather, faded into drunkenness, drug addiction and the streets of Pensacola, Fla. for most of the 1970s and '80s. Lost now in the wonder of a life reclaimed, happy in a long marriage and "a small home in New Hampshire," McClain is able to sing out his gratitude and testify to the strength of his religious faith in every song. He's a wonder to behold, a living archive of southern soul music and all its folk, blues, church and dance-hall strains, and a singer possessed of one mighty set of pipes.