The thrill is back 

Bluesman Mike Bader matches his music

Mike Bader doesn’t smile on the cover of his new album, Matches My Feelings, nor does he smile in the photo on the inside jacket. In that latter picture, Bader strolls down an alley, clad in black from head to toe, a leather jacket zipped all the way up and black derby his defining features. In one hand is Bader’s guitar case; in the other is a small briefcase emblazoned with a sticker: “Treat ’em rough.” At his side walks his dog, Buddy.

Bader looks every bit the hard-bitten bluesman he has aimed to be since picking the guitar back up just over a decade ago and every bit the one he sounds like on “Wrong Name Woman,” Matches My Feelings’ first track. On the song, Bader dumps his misnomering woman before the first verse is over, employing a gravelly voice nothing like the low, softly nasal tones he spoke in when we met last week.
Mike Bader really digs the blues on his new album, Matches My Feelings: “Sometimes you feel like you’re playing it,” says Bader, “and sometimes you feel like it’s playing you.”

“I consider myself to be a very shy person,” says Bader, still dressed in a leather jacket but quicker to smile or chuckle during the interview, contrary to his picture. The difference between his private persona and musical guise, however, is not just an illusion from the photograph.

“When I’m doing the music,” says Bader, “I don’t think about it a whole lot, but I do feel like I’m somewhat of a different person...My personality is just subjugated to the music.”

His stage presence is not an act, or even really a conscious decision, but it does amount to a wholly different experience from his everyday life.

“People have asked me, ‘Well, if you’re shy how could you go out and play in front of two or three thousand people at a festival?’ Well, I don’t think about being shy when I’m up there,” he says. “I think about being a good bluesman.”

Bader pauses for a moment. “And it certainly helps when people applaud.”

Bader has heard his share of applause. As a young man, he was enraptured with the blues, taken in for the first time by B.B. King’s classic “The Thrill is Gone.” Bader recounts the experience on the title track of his new album: “Something ’bout it really struck a chord when he made Lucille sing…Matches my feeling, why I really dig the blues.” Bader’s admiration for King turned him on to other blues greats like Albert Collins and Jimmy Dawkins. And, growing up in eastern Iowa, about 200 miles west of Chicago, Bader got the chance to see many of those heroes by sneaking into clubs while underage, paying as little as $2 a night for the privilege.

On one such occasion, a 12-year-old Bader saw Albert King play a college auditorium. “The first song,” Bader recalls, “the sound was just hideous. [King] stopped and he kind of walked the sound guy through the adjustments and then he said, ‘Now get out of there and lock the door.’

“The [sound] guy thought he was joking," Bader continues, “and [King] said, ‘I’m not joking. Get out or I’ll come back there and kick your ass.’ Once he had it the way he wanted, [King] goes, ‘Now we can play.’ And he hit a couple of notes that were just otherworldly, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to do that.’”

For the next 10 years, Bader played guitar everywhere he could, from nightclubs to auto dealerships, eventually giving up on a music career for lack of financial feasibility. He moved to Yellowstone National Park and worked as a ranger, also earning a degree in resource conservation from UM and injuring his index finger.

The injury kept Bader from playing guitar for more than a few minutes at a time and lasted almost a decade. One day though, he picked up a guitar just to noodle around and the pain he expected never began. Not long after, Bader sat in on a couple of shows with his brothers, who are also musicians, and his course was set.

“Performing for a live audience just really jacked me up,” says Bader. “I decided to really get back into this and start my own band. I spent a couple years doing a solo act, coffee houses and restaurants just getting my chops back, and then I decided to go for the full-on electric blues band.”

He hooked up with bass player Larry Hirschberg and drummer Brandon Zimmer in 2005, two local musicians comprising the rhythm section Bader rehearses, records and travels with, touring as far east as Illinois. Bader’s playing with a steady contingent of musicians—he’s especially complementary of the two in his band—affords him musical experiences that he doesn’t shy away from calling mystical.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re playing it and sometimes you feel like it’s playing you,” says Bader. “Those are the best gigs—when you’re on autopilot, when you’re up there you’re not even really thinking about what you’re doing. The words just come out. I go with the flow and also with my rhythm section…It’s a pleasure.”

Pleasure is an important part of blues music, something Bader emphasizes.

“My music is really about having people forget about their troubles and the cares of the world and have fun,” says Bader. “Our job is to make people happy and so that’s what we focus on in the live show.”

While Bader’s music career is in some ways an homage to the blues greats of his youth, he feels free to cross traditional blues with other genres. Matches My Feelings incorporates the feel of rhythm ‘n’ blues (“Just One More Time”) and funk (“High & Wide”) as well as one instrumental with a reggae beat (“Phunky Dread”).

“A lot of people,” says Bader, “have the blues pigeonholed in their minds where they might think it’s just one thing…an old guy sitting on a bale of hay. Certainly the blues is that too, but the blues is always evolving.

“If the blues is just a museum piece, it’s going to die,” he continues. “It has to live and breathe to keep going and reaching people. It’s a tough path though because blues greats have set the bar so high for what greatness is. On the other hand, it’s such a great genre and the people who are passionate about it, it really feeds them in terms of energy.”

Mike Bader’s CD-release party takes place Saturday, March 24, at Sean Kelly’s. 9:30 PM. Cover $2. Call 542-1471.
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