I've had the pleasure of knowing Mike Milligan for a decade now and during this time watch him grow as a guitarist and musician, a songwriter and a singer, becoming, with his band Steam Shovel, national-quality blues-rock performers who are respected as such -- while still continuing to live in Central Indiana!
Mike, now 36, and the two other permanent members of Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel -- brother Shaun, 33, bassist, and Robert "Tiny" Cook, drummer -- are all full-time musicians, although "Tiny" is also an engineer for Escience, a multi-million dollar home theater company that's made home theaters for former Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller, pizza entrepreneur Papa John and the Drake Hotel. Mike formed Steam Shovel in 1993, with Shaun joining in 2000, and Cook in 2005.
Kokomo-based Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel have played across the country and been well received, even in the you-better-know-blues-if-you-want-to-play-here environs of Austin and Central Texas.
Indeed, Cutter Brandenburg, tour manager for Stevie Ray Vaughan and his long time friend, wrote of the band, "I was lucky to have a club a few years in the Killeen, Texas, area (about 65 miles north of Austin) called 'Cutter's Texas Music Hall and Wild West Cantina' in Harker Heights, Texas. ... I was lucky to be able to get many great artists from all over the country to come and play. I feel certain all that did felt the presence of Stevie, it somehow made all artists play a little bit better in that they knew somehow Stevie was listening.
"The night we had Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel was so strange. ... Mike and Steam Shovel pulled in, and I could feel them before they played. ... The moment I heard Mike play guitar with his tone and passion, I knew this guy again was the real deal. ... Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel feel and have the passion.
"Stevie used to gauge players on if the hair on his arm stood up. He would look to me, point to his arm and smile real big and go, 'Whoooo! Ceeee.' I felt that in my soul that night with Mike and the guys from Steam Shovel. I know somewhere my best friend was looking down and saying 'Yepper cee whooooooo!'"
Characteristically, Mike Milligan is modest about his musical accomplishments, saying simply, "[A]s with anything I've done, it has come with much persistence, hard work, honesty, and good timing. The music speaks for, and sells itself. It gets us House of Blues shows in Chicago, Cleveland, everywhere. It has allowed us to open for Tower of Power, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Al Green, Buddy Guy ... and tons more."
Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel are regular players not only in places like Chicago, where they regularly play at both the House of Blues and Red Fish, but also on their home turf as well, being frequent guests at Yorktown's Mr. Mouse, several places in hometown Kokomo, Billy's Lounge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Artsgarden, Rathskeller and Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis -- and this only begins to list their numerous gigging spots, from Ohio and Kentucky to Connecticut.
Recently, the usually electric Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel developed an acoustic version of itself as well, and plays its acoustics gigs with all the finesse of its electric ones. For the acoustic shows, Mike trades in his electric guitar for a National Steel, Shaun plays acoustic bass guitar, and "Tiny" handles the percussion chores on congas and bongos, playing both with his hands and with sticks.
Although Mike and Steam Shovel have some masterful cover arrangements of Doyle Bramhall's "Life By The Drop" (made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan), Bill Wither's "Ain't No Sunshine," Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" and a few choice others, the band's music is 90 percent originals composed by Mike himself, who is an excellent, truly original songwriter.
I myself have written on Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel before, and if I found them most praiseworthy, it's only because the nice words were fully deserved! I'd like to quote a few of my printed words on Mike and Steam Shovel, as I think they sum up nicely these artists' strengths. In "Labor Day Blues at the Indy Rib Fest," written when Mike and the band opened for Buddy Guy in 2005, I wrote:
This writer, an active writer on the blues since 1987, has known Mike Milligan personally since he began his active musical career in the1990s, when I'd hear him at the Slippery Noodle. Now, whenever I've heard him play his guitar these last few years, my mind harkens back those days in the Noodle when I first listened to his playing. For I've become very much aware of how much he has matured as a player over this not-quite-a decade. I mentioned this to my friend and Rib Fest companion Susan as we both sat there digging this excellent guitar solo that Mike was playing then, and Susan mentioned to me how much she'd noticed Mike Milligan mature as a guitar artist -- in just the past year! Now, onstage, "The best damn blues band ever" as named by Indianapolis's renowned blues bar, the Slippery Noodle Inn, stood Mike with his band, Steam Shovel, the whole of Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel consisting of only three people, Mike himself on guitar and vocals, brother Shaun Milligan on bass, and Robert "Tiny" Cook on drums. Mike stood in front somewhat ahead of the other two, his characteristic gray tweed workman's cap on his head, and sunburst-color 1961 Fender Stratocaster in hand. Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel have this remarkably full sound for a trio, filling the audio space fully and completely, and never leaving the listener with a feeling that there's something lacking. Perhaps it's that particular way Mike manages to fill the space with his guitar notes, notes he can use one way to sound the way they would normally come, guitar-like; but Mike can also take the notes he makes on his guitar and give them a deeper, fuller sound, more like those that would come from an organ. (Posted on my Web html, ...)
On Mike's songwriting, I wrote in my article "Blues Against Bush" in Socialism and Democracy 41 (July, 2006):
Mike Milligan is a gentle, humane man devoted to his wife and toddler son, and his original song lyrics partake very much of that gentleness. Milligan molds his songs into deeply philosophical statements in music that never become preachy. Specific attestations of this include "Do Whatcha Gotta Do" and "If You Don't Change,"...Further examples are the songs of honesty and affection he writes of family members. ...The original songs of Mike Milligan resonate for me--a New Left activist in the 1960s--as very palpable expressions of what we meant by our slogan, "The personal is political." (155)
Mike Milligan grew up in a musical family. His father, Big Mike Milligan, was an active touring rock musician in the 1970s, and both Mikes play frequently together live and on the Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel CDs. Recently, Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel have scored commercial successes with the Meijer's superstore chain by having their Live! CD picked for sale in all 181 Meijer's stores in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky as part of its "Outside the Mainstream" program.
The group's latest CD, Timing Is Everything, is now for sale at Best Buy locations, and Live! will soon be available there also. Further, all five Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel CDs are available in most Karma Music outlets. Quite an accomplishment for a band whose CDs are all self-produced on the band's own small label. But, tiny label or not, they are all first-class, and are reviewed below.
Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel's 1998 debut self-titled CD is the most Stevie Ray Vaughan-ish, most notably on the first two tracks, but already shows Mike out to define himself in his own way. All the songs on the CD were written by Mike Milligan, and Mike is also leavening his blues guitar here with use of wah-wah pedal and other rock approaches, moving already from derivative blues guitarist to blues-rock original.
The second CD, 2001's When I Get There, is another CD of all Mike Milligan originals, with three of its 14 tracks instrumentals. Mike plays all instruments on the CD, but, harbingers of what was to come, brother Shaun joins him on bass, as does his father on guitar.
With the third CD, 2004's If You Don't Change, Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel found their own unique, particular groove. The group is established as a trio now, with Mike on lead guitar and vocals, Shaun Milligan on bass, and Derek Felix on drums (later replaced by Robert "Tiny" Cook as permanent drummer).
The songs on the CD are for the most part philosophical and pensive, for at the time Mike had suffered the loss of several friends due to drug overdoses. There is a tribute track to his father, on which his father plays, now become a Mike Milligan staple on his CDs, a sound bite from his young son, Maceo, another Mike Milligan CD staple, and only one cover, most appropriately Doyle Bramhall's "Life By The Drop."
If You Don't Change also marks the first recording on the group's Mojo Hut label, and shows the group now has both a Web site and an e-mail address.
2004 also brought out the Live! CD, recorded at Indianapolis's renowned blues club, the Slippery Noodle Inn. The 15 tracks feature 13 Mike Milligan originals from the three earlier CDs, with two new covers from Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Big Mike Milligan joins the younger Mike on "Like Father, Like Son" and "On the Day" is sung for his wife Suzanne to celebrate her birthday. As mentioned above, Mike Milligan is very much a devoted family man, married for ten years, who willingly acknowledges how much family support has meant for him over the years.
Live! is also Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel's best-selling CD to date, and features sleeve notes from Matthew Socey, host of "Blues House Party" on Indianapolis public radio station WFYI.
The group's latest CD, Timing Is Everything, came out in late 2007, and firmly establishes what can be called the Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel's signature sound: an insidiously soft, deeply emotive approach that also contains a hard-rocking edge. This is most notably brought out here on the first track, a cover of Bill Wither's "Ain't No Sunshine." As with the first CD, horns are featured on a couple of tracks, and as much as this writer admires all of Mike Milligan's songs, this CD contains his most exemplary one to date, the very poignant "This Is Not Goodbye," a especially powerful knockout.
Space prevents more than a thumbnail sketch of the five Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel CDs to date, and even more words could never really do justice to, or adequately describe, the music--which is best heard, and always a delight. In addition to the outlets mentioned above, all the CDs may be purchased online at the band's Web site, ..., which gives touring schedules, press notices, pictures, and much more.
George Fish can be reached at . "George Fish's Blog" can be read at ....