Mike Farris Follows up Grammy Winning LP with a Stax-sounding Soul Tour de Force on “Silver and Tone” (Album Review)

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Following his rather stunning Grammy win for 2015’s Shine for All the People, Mike Farris is obviously riding high, this time applying his signature heartbreaking voice and emotional approach to what is ultimately a terrific soul album, Silver & Stone. The title refers t his wife’s ring, and the uplifting album is a celebration of a 23 year partnership where she helped him conquer substance abuse.  It’s a celebration of seven years of sobriety where Farris has built a reputation of an engaging, electric, live performer that absolutely enthralls audiences, whether backed by a simple trio or a nine-piece band. Mike Farris is our modern day soul man, evoking memories of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Otis Clay and others.  It’s almost hard to believe now that he was a front man for the hard rock band, Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies several years ago. Now he’s just channeling that same unbridled energy to soul, blues and gospel. And, he sounds damn natural doing it.

Farris penned seven of these dozen tunes, choosing also to cover Bill Withers, Willie Dixon, Bert Berns and two others. The first three tracks, “Tennessee Girl,” “Are You Lonely For Me Baby?” and “Can I Get a Witness” bring us back to the heyday of the Stax sound.  Even though the album was recorded in Nashville, these players and several of the background vocalists are well-schooled in that Memphis sound. Long-time collaborator, the animated Paul Brown (Waterboys, Ann Peebles, Bobby Rush) plays keyboards on eight tracks while Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan) has that honor on the others. Drums are shared by Gene Chrisman (Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley) and Derrek Phillips (Robben Ford, Hank Williams Jr.). Acclaimed guitarists Doug Lancio (Patty Griffin, John Hiatt), Rob McNelly (Delbert McClinton), and George Marinelli (Bonnie Raitt) share guitar duties.  Joe Bonamassa solos on “Movin’ Me.” Steve Mackey (Delbert McClinton) and producer/label owner Garry West plays bass. Three tracks have a three-four piece horn section led by Jim Hoke while most have background vocalists, led by Wendy Moten and Shonka Dukureh.

The album is full of great songs including a cover of Bill Withers’ “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” William Prince’s smoldering ballad, “Breathless,” and an inventive take on Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby” where the groove evokes Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The Farris compositions are just as strong, and in these cases even more powerful.  “Golden Wings” is a soaring, smooth R&B ballad infused with gospel, written for his son, Christian. Farris has been performing this song and some of the others live this summer. When he introduces “Golden Wings” it often goes something like this, “it’s one of those songs that just flowed out after I did an exercise where you write a letter to your younger self. It has a dual message – something to say to a young person who is looking for answers, but also a reminder to myself to be free and open to the possibilities of life.”

Farris also composed “When Mavis Sings” in honor of one his main inspirers. He has grown close to her in recent years and cites aspects of her life in the song. In other Farris originals like “Can I Get a Witness?” “Snap Your Fingers,” and “Movin’ Me” it’s clear that Farris has mastered the soul idiom. The album closes with William Cook’s “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” a reflection of how dedicated and grateful he is to his wife.

This is not only a great soul record. It has healing power and is a must listen.

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