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Singer-songwriter-guitarist Michael Colton is lucky to be alive. The LA-based blues-rock artist has been at death’s door twice—once for blood clots in his lungs, and another time for an acute head trauma that caused bleeding in his brain. Twice blessed with second chances he decided to commit his life to music. His powerful emergence as a unique guitar stylist and session musician has the darkly spiritual overtones of many classic blues musician’s painful, but ultimately triumphant, journeys. On Colton’s latest, The Robert Johnson Sessions EP, he inhabits Johnson’s haunted and hallowed body of work with refreshing innovation and deep emotion.
“I don’t think of death as this dark struggle; we’re all going to die, but there was something liberating in hitting that boundary. It set me free,” Colton explains. “Robert Johnson’s music helped me heal. There is something joyful in that music that I couldn’t grasp until I was in the ICU hallucinating from the pain. When I healed, I heard his music differently.”
The legend goes that in the 1930s Robert Johnson was just another mediocre guitar player hanging out at juke joints, but after a brief disappearance, he remerged on the scene dazzlingly proficient. The explanatory myth is that Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his mind-boggling technique. His 1936-1937 recordings have been the blues gospel for countless generations. His music has most notably been interpreted by Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and even The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Colton’s honeyed vocals have warmth, depth, and character grit. His guitar solos draw from a wellspring ideas, from the soaring bends inherent in the Chicago blues tradition, to mystical ethereal textures, and gorgeous lyrical musical motifs that unfold into little epic solo guitar stories. He sums it up saying: “I like to play music rather then just the guitar.”
The 6 powerful interpretations of this classic blues oeuvre stand toe to toe with some of the classic rock canon’s most beloved Johnson modernizations. Colton turns in a goose-bump inducing version of “Stones In My Pathway.” Over a heavenly gospel choir providing a harmonic cloud, Colton sings with bold vulnerability and reaches skyward with soulful guitar virtuosity. His tender reading of “Last Fair Deal” has recently been recast as a lullaby for his newborn son. “I put my son to sleep every night singing ‘Last Fair Deal.’ If I stopped singing, he would cry.”
Also on the EP is the blues-rock standard “Sweet Home Chicago,” inventively reimagined like a simmering lost track from the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. It’s a treat for guitar fans as Colton invited guitar powerhouse Steve Trovato (Albert Collins, Robben Ford) to play on the track. “Everyone plays that song so fast, but if you really listen to those lyrics, it’s more emotional than that,” Colton says, explaining his distinctly slow and soulful interpretation. Colton also bravely tackles “Crossroads”—a track classic rock radio has almost made synonymous with Eric Clapton—and turns in a stunning version, sharing the spotlight with world class guest guitarist Anthony Stauffer (best known for his robust profile as an online guitar educator whose lessons net 10,000 hits per month).
Colton started playing guitar as a teenager fired up by the masterfully expressive approaches of blues-based players like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton. He first heard Robert Johnson in eighth grade, seeking out this Holy Grail on vinyl after reading an interview with Eric Clapton where EC gushed over Johnson’s blues genius. As a cocky guitar upstart, he couldn’t get past his gunslinger attitude and laid down his guitar after a gig opening up for roots session ace Duke Levine. During that fateful night, Colton handed Levine his guitar during sound check so that Colton could assess the venue acoustics while Levine played. Levine’s technical mastery when just tooling around to test sound astounded Colton and ultimately broke his spirit, and he turned away from pursuing a professional music career. But while healing from acute head trauma, his priorities shifted and guitar became an outlet to express his pain. “Recovering was difficult. It took me months to function physically. I was terrified of dying, and I freaked out about losing my mental acuity. So to keep my brain sharp, I started playing guitar 4 or 5 hours a day,” he says.
With renewed vigor, he had a career-changing encounter with acclaimed producer Blake English (George Benson, Toni Braxton, Jennifer Lopez) when Colton brought his guitar along to an informal studio jam. “The guy who owned the studio came out and said ‘who are you?! I thought he was mad because I was playing so loud. I said, ‘I’m leaving,’ and he told me to keep playing,” Colton recalls. English was the studio owner and ended up tapping Colton for session work and the two have forged a creative partnership and friendship. English produced Colton’s previous work, the slow-cooked R&B instrumental “Sugar,” and he also produced The Robert Johnson Sessions.
“When I was a kid I was competitive and didn’t have any real life experience so what was I really playing for?” Colton says, pausing pensively. As an adult, however, Colton plays because he has to. “With that second injury, I should have died, but I’m a walking testament to life, and music healed me better than any medicine I was given,” he says.