Not just the blues: Mike Clark Band covers various genres on album Zero to Sixty

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Mike Clark was at home in Turner Valley when his wife overheard a song he was working on.

It was called Turn Away, the angry but soulful opening track on the Mike Clark Band’s new album Zero to Sixty. Using the appropriate metaphor of a circus leaving its clowns behind, the song was inspired by various troubles in the world and the troubling people who are causing them and refuse to go away.

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“With this whole media circus with (Donald) Trump coming back, it’s like ‘Oh man, aren’t we done with this sh-t yet?’” says Clark. “It’s not our country, but it affects the whole world. It’s like the circus left, the clowns are still here. That song is about that, and then the war in the Ukraine and then Gaza and all of that. It’s like ‘We’re still doing this sh-t? Why?’”

So Clark was venting his frustrations for the song – even dropping a well-placed f-bomb into the lyrics for good measure – while sitting on a couch at home when his wife made an observation.

“She said, ‘Oh, you’re writing a dark song. It sounds sort of happy but it’s a dark song,’” says Clark. “She said, ‘You’re tra-la-la-ing through the graveyard.’ I was like ‘I’m going to use that.’ That’s where the tra-la-las come into play. Always try to put a hook in there.”

The cheery-sounding, sad-song vibe isn’t new in popular music, particularly music that is grounded in blues and roots music. But this is only one mood of many on Zero to Sixty.

While the rather apocalyptic album cover art may suggest otherwise, the tracks do not dwell on dark subject matter. Clark provides some masterful bluesman melancholy on the soulful ballad Blue Day but also offers the lively dance-craze anthem Waggle Butt Rock, which was inspired by his dog, and the jazzy instrumental Heather’s Shiny Dress, which showcases some intricate interplay between Clark’s sax playing and Don Muir on piano.

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The bluesy hard-rocking title track adds trumpet to the mix, as does the gospel-infused Let Us Be. The biggest outlier on the album, however, might be the impossibly catchy Never Gonna Not, which he co-wrote and sings with guitarist Brett Spaulding. While Clark is often associated with the blues, especially with his howling saxophone chops, he has never really considered himself exclusive to the genre.

“At this point, it’s whatever comes out, comes out,” Clark says. “There are a bunch of different feels on this album, I think even more so than others. Never Gonna Not is almost like a bubblegum pop song, which I’m not apologizing for. With Let Us Be, I was going for a Memphis R&B, Al Green vibe on it.”

Clark has said that Zero to Sixty was meant to be a gift to himself on his 60th birthday and the album certainly benefits from his long tenure in Calgary’s bar scene. He is the owner of Mikey’s on 12th – and previously owned Mickey’s Juke Joint – which offers live music every night of the week, with extra matinee shows on the weekend. On Saturday afternoons, The Mike Clark Band hosts a jam at his 12th Avenue establishment, which has them acting as a house band backing jammers of various styles. This has not only helped the band master various shades of the blues and other genres but also upped the natural synchronicity among the players.

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“Because of the jam, we have to play so many different styles that we try and fit in,” says Clark, who will be leading a 10-piece band for an album-release party at Mikey’s on 12th on March 22. “I call ourselves genre-jumpers – Mike Clark and the Genre-Jumpers. We can go from reggae to a heavy blues tune to Led Zeppelin or whatever at the drop of a hat, or some old country tune.”

For Zero to Sixty, the core band was Muir, Spaulding, drummer Thom Moon and Jeremy Coats on bass, with guest appearances by Steve Pineo on slide guitar, Greg (Junior) Demchuk on guitar and Allistair Elliot on trumpet and flugelhorn. Most songs also feature the backup vocals of Marina Joy and Jenni Heaven, who help give the album a rollicking Exile on Main Street Feel. Mike Emerson, the musical director of California’s Tommy Castro and the Painkillers, produced the album and also provided some keyboard tracks.

The personnel was similar to Clark’s Devil’s Playground, an album he released under his name in 2021. But Zero to Sixty has much more of a band vibe, which is why it’s credited to the Mike Clark Band. While it may not have been discernible to the untrained ear, Devil’s Playground was recorded piecemeal rather than live off the floor in the studio due to the pandemic. Emerson produced it remotely because he couldn’t travel to Calgary.

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This time around, Emerson and the band were in Calgary’s Airwaves studio together. It felt like a genuine Mike Clark Band album, Clark says. “This one feels more cohesive,” he says. “That comes off in the sound, too.”

Growing up in Richmond, B.C., Clark began playing saxophone  In junior high and joined the school jazz band under the tutelage of a young teacher with progressive tastes.

“He introduced us to Frank Zappa in Grade 8 and jazz like Stanley Turrentine and Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis – Bitches Brew was still fairly new back then – and Freddie Hubbard, Count Basis, the big-band stuff,” he says. “The first album I ever bought was a Count Basie album. Well, the first jazz album. The first album I ever bought was BTO’s Not Fragile.”

Clark was a junior high music teacher himself for 20 years before becoming a club owner in 2007 with Mikey’s Juke Joint. It closed in 2018, a year after he opened Mikey’s on 12th. While the Beltline venue offers a variety of roots music, it has become known as primarily a blues bar. Given all the shades on Zero to Sixty, it may seem limiting to define the Mike Clark Band as exclusively a blues band, but it has always informed Clark’s music sensibilities.

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“It’s just always been part of my repertoire playing in these bands,” he says. “When I was a kid, one of my favourite bands growing up was The Powder Blues Band, all these horn guys,” he says. “I was just starting out as a horn player and thought ‘Wow, that’s really cool. I want to do that. My mom was a piano player. She used to play classical stuff mostly. She wasn’t a pro but she was pretty good. She would be playing Chopin but was also playing Scott Joplin rags. So that was in my brain right from the get-go.

“My saxophone playing has always been more informed by blues players than jazz players, so I always gravitated towards that style and got known as a blues saxophone player.”

The Mike Clark Band will play at Mikey’s on 12th on March 22.

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