Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mike Wheeler Self Made Man Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the February 14, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Mike Wheeler – Self Made Man

Delmark Records

13 tracks / 1:06:28

Countless variations of blues music are being produced all over the world, and most of it is really terrific stuff and I love getting to learn something new every time I check out an artist’s latest material. But every time I hear some quality guitar-driven Chicago blues, it reminds me of why I was drawn to the genre in the first place. And that is why Mike Wheeler’s latest CD, Self Made Man, is in such heavy listening rotation for me right now.

Mike Wheeler has been around the block a few times, having pleased blues fans for almost three decades. He has been with quite a few different bands over the years, and has recorded albums with many of them. These include some true Illinois gems, such as Cadillac Dave & the Chicago Redhots, Big James & the Chicago Playboys and Peaches Staten. I might as well drop a few more names as he has played with some true legends, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor.

Mike has been so busy that he has not recorded very much of his own stuff, but he has made up for lost time with Self Made Man. Wheeler takes care of the vocals and guitar, and is joined by a fabulous band that includes Brian James on keyboards, Larry Williams on bass, and Cleo Cole behind the drum kit; harp-master Oman Coleman pitches in on a few tracks too. There is plenty of music on this disc, with 13 tracks and a 66 minute play time. All of these tracks are originals, with the exception of Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby.”

Wheeler has a strong and rich vice, and plays a mean blues guitar too. This is evident from the first bars of the lead-off track, “Here I Am.” This is one funky piece of music, and the guitar and bass are perfectly synced over James’ classic Hammond B3 sound. His guitar tone on this song reminds me a bit of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Mike is able to weave riffs in and out of the verses like the seasoned pro that he is.

Once I wrapped my mind around what good musical skills he has, I began to notice that Mike Wheeler is also a good writer and an engaging storyteller. He shows a great grasp of humor and irony as he explores the misery of getting trapped by the wrong mate (“Big Mistake”), being his own worst enemy (“Self Made Man”) and trying to make things right again (“I Don’t Like it Like That”). These songs are all set to solid blues score with a little funk thrown in for good measure.

Omar Coleman appears on “Self Made Man,” “Get Your Mind Right” and “Chicago Blues.” It seems like this Windy City man is playing everywhere (and with everyone) right now, and he is a force to be reckoned with. If you are not familiar with his work this album will be a great introduction to his talent and energy. His tone is unbelievable, and his ability to work his harp into the mix and play off of Wheeler’s guitars and vocals is uncanny. His contributions pushed “Self Made Man” over the top to make it my favorite track on the disc.

The lone cover tune on Self Made Man is “Let Me Love You Baby,” a Willie Dixon song that Koko Taylor hit out of the park back in the seventies. Wheeler does not try to copy what Taylor (or Steve Ray) did with this song, but instead provides his own smooth take on it. His guitars smooth out all of the edges on this song and with Brian James’ beautiful piano work helps this song flirt with the jazz genre. But the root is still the blues and Williams and Cole stay perfectly in sync to hold down the beat. I like that Mike stepped up and did something a little different with this classic tune.

Self Made Man is Chicago-influenced blues through and through, and it is a real pleasure to listen to all of the tracks -- there is not a clunker in the lot. Between the well-played guitar, the first-rate band and the clever lyrics, and I cannot think of anything on this album that a blues fan would object to. You should give it a listen and think about picking up a copy of your own!


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