Mike McDonald shows character in new music
Anyone who still doubts the close connection between punk rock and folk music need only listen to Mike McDonald’s first solo album, Live at the Blue Chair Cafe. Just don’t call it “Jr. Gone Mild.” While suitable for fireside with acoustic guitar and vocals only, it’s a vivid, sometimes disturbing self-portrait of the famously ornery singer-songwriter of Jr. Gone Wild.
An old punk rocker from back in the day, McDonald wields a confident strum as he sings his personal songs with a resonant nasally raw but pleasant tone. He doesn’t quite fall into the Great Singers Who Can’t Sing category (Tom Waits, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen), but it’s a distinctive voice. Give him a few years. He smokes. He’s long since given up whiskey, of course.
The “solo singer songwriter” has to be the most pure branch of folk music. Almost nothing gets in the way of the storytelling. No distracting African rhythms, banjo solos or fancy chord progressions, no band-mates to complicate things. Just a man alone with his songs. The test of a good song, it is said, is that it will even work in its most unplugged form, naked and afraid.
Beyond describing individual songs as “fast,” “medium or “slow,” McDonald’s lyrics, images, and stories are what really stand out here. He’s really put himself out there.
The first line of the fast first song Biography is “If I thought it would make a difference I would say something,” deftly summing up a bleak worldview coupled with his long-standing aversion to political songs. Wordplay almost approaches talking cowboy poetry, the wit evident in lyrics like this: “The old road bound for glory is fucking endless, like Desolation Row by someone who doesn’t quite get it. I imagine that’s what it’s like owning a Harley.”
And there’s your bonus Dylan reference. Mike loves Dylan.
There’s more humour in Lying to an Activist, romance in Try Again and an expression of the blahs in Slept All Afternoon, a fast song that features the dreaded harmonica harness, speaking of things getting in the way. He plays the thing better than Dylan, though that’s not saying much. Fortunately, it is used sparingly.
McDonald tells us about his childhood in the medium-tempo Relevant Moments, how he and his friends played with GI Joes until they were 11, the action figures looking “shiftless” in their final battle. His alcoholism comes up: “The last time I drank, I don’t know where I was … 15 years down the drain.”
Anyone who knows McDonald knows the story well, and the songwriter injects a hopeful note in Living on the North Side, a state of mind known only among lifelong Edmontonians, with the line “The kids are still all right. I recognize the signs.” And there’s the tell that he also comes from the point of view of being a loving father.
The traits that shine through this bare-boned music are the same things that helped shape punk rock culture (minus the political songs, of course): independence, strength, honesty, courage, sort if like the credo of the Boy Scouts, come to think of it. It’s no surprise that the “underground” thrives in both types of music.
A lot of punk rock songwriters have bravely turned it down and taken the path to the folk fest circuit. It sure took McDonald long enough, but like many things better with age, the wait was worth getting such a deep and evocative musical autobiography.
Final note: The album, recorded live in January of 2014, might never have been made if it weren’t for his manager Kirby, a beloved Edmonton music scene builder who died of complications from cancer in September. “She made the project happen,” McDonald says. She also ran sound for the gig.
Live at the Blue Chair Café will be released with a show Friday night – where else? – at the Blue Chair Café.