Payin' Dues: Michael Messer

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Slide master Michael Messer might have a bulletproof knowledge of the blues, but his 10-album career has seen him endlessly tweak the genre’s nose. In his latest incarnation as Michael Messer’s Mitra, debut album Call Of The Blues finds him flanked by Hindustani musicians Manish Pingle and Gurdain Rayatt, with the trio twisting standards such as Muddy Waters’ I Can’t Be Satisfied and Fred McDowell’s You Gotta Move into bold new shapes.

Call Of The Blues isn’t your average autopilot blues, is it?

No, it’s not. I’m a traditionalist in one sense, in that my taste for Indian music comes from the old records, the real thing, and the way I play is very pure. But I’m not from there. I’m British, brought up in the 50s and 60s, and there’s always been that fusion in my records. They’ve always got a different twist.

Does Indian music and blues go together easily?

Yes. Thirty years ago, an artist called Brij Bhushan Kabra made an album called Call Of The Valley with Indian slide guitar, tabla, a couple of other instruments. That just blew me away.

Does India have a blues scene?

It is popular, but only in fashionable circles. It’s not the music of the people. It’s growing, but certainly, the festival I went to a couple of years ago, that was very much a trendy, arty kind of thing.

How did you choose the covers?

The first tune on the album – You Gotta Move – is the first tune I played with Manish when we sat down. Certain songs had to be there. For me, the centrepiece is [McDowell’s] You Gonna Be Sorry. The way Fred McDowell plays has always made me think about Indian music. There are no chord changes and there’s that freedom of improvisation. Manish and Gurdain are not blues fans so when they heard me sing the Muddy Waters song, I Can’t Be Satisfied, that was completely fresh to them. It was interesting to hear their take on it.

Is it true that Johnny Cash was a fan?

Yes. My brother, Alan Messer, is a photographer in Nashville, and he was a friend of Johnny and June Cash. Through him, John got to hear an album I did in 1993 called Rhythm Oil, and he offered to write the sleeve notes. It was surreal… but less surreal than it would have been a few years later, just before he died, when he recorded Hurt and had become a giant in the industry. He was slightly under the radar at that point.

Call Of The Blues is out now via Knife Edge.