Wednesday, March 18, 2009

'Big Dog' delivers original gems

Michael "Big Dog" Murphy presented his
original blues compositions during a show in
Escanaba last week.


Michael "Big Dog" Murphy showcased his impressive catalog of original material during a acoustic performance on March 13 at 8th Street Coffee House in downtown Escanaba.

The singer-songwriter-guitarist played more than two dozen of his own blues and folk compositions and filled out the program with a handful of choice cover tunes.

He introduced a number of songs from his forthcoming "Lies Told. Loves Lost" compact disc which had not been performed in public before. A prolific songwriter, Murphy recently wrote ten songs in three weeks.

His thought-provoking lyrics could easily stand alone as poetry, but he combines them with no-notes-wasted instrumentation to craft instantly appealing songs.

Murphy paid tribute to Robert Johnson, the great bluesman who, legend says, sold his soul to the devil for musical success, with "Scratch's Blues." The haunting lyrics Murphy sang included: "Gotta get down to the crossroads. Gotta find my brother Robert J."

Although Murphy performed the song solo, highlighting his gruff-yet-soulful voice, he earlier recorded a take featuring first-rate harmonica accompaniment from Michael "Jelly Roll" Roy.

A fan of practical jokes, Murphy told the story of a club gig where Roy wore sunglasses and feigned blindness. Murphy helped the "blind" Roy on and off the stage during the evening and through the crowd at the end of the show. Murphy then assisted Roy into the driver's seat of his car while amazed onlookers watched the "blind" musician motor away.

After a break, Murphy returned with "I Don't Want No Tears When I'm Gone." Murphy wrote the song in reaction to the death of keyboard player Mickey Larson who passed away from throat cancer on Aug.13, 2004. Fans may remember Larson as a founding member of the Tennis Shoe Tongue Band, later known simply as Tongue.

Another of the evening's standout performances came with the original composition entitled "Hellbound." Murphy sang: "I'm hellbound, baby, there's goin' be the devil to pay. I'm hellbound, if I keep doing the things I do." The song may be the perfect example of the blues

Murphy told his audience many outstanding blues numbers contained just three chords. He cited Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins and blues pioneer Charlie Patton as examples.

Many of Murphy's songs deal with a broken relationship and resulting depression. "Young people don't have a monopoly on heart-break," the 58-year-old musician said.

With a depressed mental state, Murphy temporarily lost the essence of who he was, he confided to the audience. His song "Two Me's" illustrated the point.

While patrons may have felt Murphy's pain, his experiences have proven great fodder for his songs, as "The Band Aid," "I Wonder" and "Suitcase in My Hand" proved.

Some of Murphy's songs were especially dark such as "Tracks," about drug addiction; and "Cup of Diamonds."

Still, Murphy displayed some humor in "Big Fancy Car," about a man who thinks his deficiencies with women will be solved with a better automobile.

Another original entitled "Evil Woman," not the Electric Light Orchestra hit from 1976, is about a "lady of the evening" in New Orleans who steals the belongings of her customers when she leaves.

Nick-named "Big Dog" due to his "rather large stature," Murphy possesses an powerful growl in his voice, not unlike Tom Waits. In fact, Murphy performed his take on "219," a song composed by Waits and Kathleen Brennan. "My baby's leavin' town on the 219," Murphy sang plaintively about a woman going away on a train.

Showing a variety of influences, the Tennessee-born musician also impressed the audience with his rendition of "Unchain My Heart," a top ten hit for Ray Charles in 1962.

Murphy covered Frank Frost's "My Backscratcher," in a version sure to please the late Mississippi harp genius.

Besides performing solo, Murphy plays in an acoustic duo and with a full band. Called Men of Blues, or the MOB for short, the band consists of Murphy (lead guitar and vocals), Richard "Smokey" Smith (bass) and "Lucky Don" Veerkamp (drums). Some shows have included Larry "3rd Degree" Byrne (keyboards), Roberto "Birdman" Scharone (sax) and acoustic sideman Michael "Jelly Roll" Roy (harmonica).

Based in Wisconsin, Murphy was raised south of Nashville in a Southern Baptist surrounding.

He has opened for A. C. Reed, the late Sean Costello, Philip Walker, Ronnie Baker Brooks and the up & coming Shannon Curfman. He is also proud to have shared the stage with Big Brother and the Holding Co. and Chicago's Magic Slim and the Teardrops.

His blues heroes include Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers, B. B. King, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Little Milton and Buddy Guy.

Murphy's CD recordings include: "Live and Blue," "No Bar, Too Far," "M2: Unplugged" and the soon to be released "Lies Told. Loves Lost."

Although Murphy's music is heavy with the sounds of the blues, he concluded his Escanaba show with "Blackbird," a Paul McCartney song from the Beatles' White Album. Like many songs, the lyrics are open to interpretation, but opaquely about struggle and freedom.

During the evening, Murphy took his audience on an emotional rollcoaster ride, ending on a positive note.

Unfortunately, the blues musician had significant competition for his first appearance in Escanaba in two years, due to the Canadian pop band Guess Who playing at the Island Resort and Casino.

Thanks to 8th Street Coffee House owner Rob Romero, Delta Folks and, of course, Michael "Big Dog" Murphy for an outstanding night of acoustic blues.

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