(4 / 5)
First of all, let’s play a little game of word association. I say Smokie and you say: “Who the fuck is Alice?” More on that later…Mick McConnell is a very welcome newbie to the UK blues scene, with his impressive second solo album “Under My Skin.” Gifted guitarist and decent singer. The material holds up too. Performances by MM and the rest of the players nicely done and the production values are solid.
A bit of history. Mick’s love affair with music began when he was 11, taken by his father to Woolworths in his West Yorkshire hometown of Dewsbury to buy his first electric guitar. That moment kicked off a 40-year journey that has taken Mick from his debut in a small blues club in Leeds, to playing huge venues around the world for a living. From the humble beginnings of self-taught guitar riffs, gleaned from his older brother’s eclectic vinyl collection, to sleeping under the band van in Germany, playing to heaving street festivals in Sicily and performing in sold out stadia around the world, Mick eventually arrived at a place where this record would take him back to his musical roots; The Blues.
Born in March 1964, Mick McConnell’s early musical evolution was heavily influenced by the blues records he was introduced to by a youth club worker Alan Clark, who eventually invited 15-year-old Mick to join experienced blues band ‘Driving Sideways’. Playing Muddy Waters, BB King and John Lee Hooker covers with that band was Mick’s apprenticeship and stoked the fire inside him for the blues. His admiration for the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jeff Beck added to his drive and determination.
Despite the magnetic pull of music, Dad insisted his son get some academic qualifications behind him and learn a trade. Mick passed his school exams and began work as an apprentice in the building trade. But he eventually quit to team up with his old drummer from ‘Driving Sideways’ and began an adventure touring American military bases around Europe. They played covers 28 nights a month, honing his skills as a guitarist and as a singer.
In the 90s, Mick flew to the USA, picking up gigs wherever he could, even resorting to “pay to play” venues to gain a foothold. Disheartened and broke, he went back to the European scene with little more than his beloved Les Paul guitar. A stint with a German rock group was his coming of age as a musician. It was during this time, which included the band supporting Bon Jovi, that Mick really learned how to play in a band and think about the overall sound and not just his part. It was while touring in Germany in the late eighties that he would meet UK band Smokie. He struck up a friendship with lead singer Alan Barton, writing and recording together in Barton’s home studio. He eventually became the band’s guitar tech, and toured globally with them.
Following a tragic tour-bus crash which took Alan Barton’s life, and guitarist Alan Silson leaving the band, in 1996 Mick was recruited as Smokie’s lead guitarist. The band is still one of the UK’s most successful recording and touring exports. He has had the opportunity to share studios with some of the world’s top producers, gained the experience of recording 17 albums, many DVD’s and performed on hundreds of TV shows as well as touring the world over. The band has sold more than 28 million records and collected platinum and gold discs for their efforts.
A prolific songwriter for the last 20+ years, Mick wrote more than half the tracks on Smokie’s most recent album. He landed a publishing deal with industry giants Warner Chappel and released his first solo album, “My Kinda Heaven”, with Warner Music in 2012. A year later, Mick featured as a co-writer and guitarist on John Parr’s (St Elmo’s Fire) 2013 album release, “Letter To America”.
Recording of “Under My Skin” began in 2015 under Grammy-winning producer Blue Miller, who draws on his experience with acclaimed acts such as Bob Seger. Six cuts recorded in Nashville with some of Music City’s finest musicians with Blue Miler at the helm, and four in the UK with Stuart McCredie producing. Mick’s raw gravel vocal holds the attention throughout the 10 cuts. The material – written by Mick or co-written with Blue Miller – focuses on Mick’s dreams and past trials and tribulations. The songs are fairly versatile, and he doesn’t stay within the confines of pure blues. It is very much “balls out” on the rockier up-tempo stuff, but offers a good balance with the light and shade of the more laid-back tracks. His guitar work is accomplished, technically top drawer and they are his own licks, he’s not a “Borrower.” It’s a good game of tones too.
Opener “Holdin On” kicks things off on a Ry Cooder style groove, with some tasty resonator guitar slide licks. It all sits on an infectious core riff. Gorgeous piano from Jon Coleman, also on organ. Track three is a commercial ear-full; and made me sit up and really take notice when I heard the lyric on “No She Don’t…Like Country.” Mick singing about Samantha who says: “No, I don’t like country and I don’t do soul.” I laughed out loud; my ex-wife was a pro singer and sang country and soul! Her name; Samantha! I kid you not.
The sublime “All My Soul,” has Chris Rea and Clapton flavours, a lovely ballad verging on a mid-tempo pace. “Lock You Out,” kicks off with some twangy Brent Mason style Nashville guitar; which is ironic as this is one of the four cuts recorded in the UK and not Nashville! “Visiting Mr J” tells a tale about blues legend Robert Johnson. The closer, “Spell On Me,” has a retro vibe, channelling the likes of Gary Moore and Peter Green. A good hook on a commercial track. No real criticisms of the album; but an observation is there might well be a case of you can maybe “hear” the join between the tracks cut here and those recorded in the USA.
But for a guy who has earned his living playing lots of schamltzy pop ballads with Smokie for the last 21 years, Mick McConnell has delivered a very nice solo album that serves as a clear indication of where his heart is really at. It deserves to do well for Mick, in his own right and away from the famous brand name he usually works under. I’d bet you a tenner that Alice would approve. But, who the f……………….
By Simon Redley
(1 / 5) ‘Dull Zone’
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’