Mark May Returns to the Town He Once Called 'Blues Heaven'

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Dear Mark May,

All is forgiven. Really. It’s okay that you moved back to your hometown of Columbus, Ohio, about five years ago after spending nearly 20 in our fair city. Local audiences were privileged to experience your brand of fiery blues rock whether as a solo artist, with the Agitators, or your stint with Dickey Betts and Great Southern.

And that song on your fine new record, “Leaving Houston?” Well, it left us with a tear in our eye as well. Now, we see you have several dates coming up here, and you’re bringing not only your own Mark May Band, but the Soul Satyr Horns as well. So we only have one request, and you’ll be off the hook for abandoning us: Blow the roof off the place. Thanks. And go Buckeyes!

“Well, Houston was a hard place to leave,” May says from his Ohio home – on a cell phone that still has a 713 area code. “My brother still lives there and I have family there and history and good fortune career-wise.

“Houston has been great to me,” he continues. “It was a great place to learn blues stuff from all the great players who have been there over the years. I had a following and played a lot of good shows. But it was time to also do something different musically, play with some different people, and open up new [touring] territories.”

May adds that he also made the move to spend more time with his sisters and an aging father, his only parent left. Clyde May died in 2015, and his son’s new record, Blues Heaven, is dedicated to his memory.

And if anything, Mark May must have had a helluva backlog of songs. This disc’s 13 tracks sprawl long enough to make what in the pre-CD days would have had to be a double album. A standard CD can hold 80 minutes of music, and May’s manufacturer told him to deliver a final product no more than 79.

“Yeah, I was a little worried about that. And we were cutting it close!” May laughs. “But we faded a couple [songs] early and we slid in at about 78 minutes!”

May’s current band includes Dave Absalom (guitar), Tom Keefe (bass) and Gary Jorgenson (drums). For this effort, he also recruited the Soul Satyr Horns (Ted Basinger, John Bonham and Joe Reasoner) to play on most tracks. Others feature names familiar to Houston audiences, like Eric Demmer, Steve Krase, Hadden Sayers, Greg Martin, John Popovich, Matt Mees and Ed Durante.

May says he really wanted to take advantage of having a full horn section, who will accompany him on the Houston dates. “It was fun to get with them and have that added texture and fatness to the music,” he offers. “But I told them I didn’t know if I could afford them!”

Much of the material on Blues Heaven can be loosely categorized as blues-rock, but May also dips his toes into other genres on tracks like the lusty “Boom Boom” and “Gulf Coast Woman,” the Cajun-fueled “Put Down That Poison,” Chicago-style “Money,” and Southern-rock gut-wrenchers “I’m Her Fool” and “Almost Like a Suicide.” As mentioned, his tribute to the Bayou City, “Leaving Houston,” talks about how good the town has been to him.

“Sometimes I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, doing [mainly] blues-rock,” he says. “We can play traditional shuffles and stuff and pull back in the volume if we were playing with more traditional-sounding blues performers.”

“But I grew up listening to rock. I’ve always had that thing for ZZ Top, the Allmans and Hendrix,” May adds. “It was through them that I found the blues.” And after an aunt gave him a copy of B.B. King's Live in Cook County Jail, he was hooked.

May says that during his stint with Dickey Betts – which came shortly after Betts was dismissed from the Allman Brothers Band – he learned a valuable lesson from the Southern-rock giant: how to use songs to build excitement – and then finish with a big ending of everyone playing together.

May also credits singer/guitarist Rick Derringer with stoking his love for the dual lead guitar (even before the Allmans), and especially his first records (Derringer and Sweet Evil), on which he and guitarist Gary Johnson created a sort of twin-lead sound. A Derringer show was also the young Mark May’s first concert, in Cleveland in 1976. “[Rick] really could play to show you how a song means, instead of just showing off chops,” he says.

The upcoming run of shows in Houston and the surrounding area between Thursday and Sunday will be May’s first trip back in a couple of years, and he says he’s already preparing: by dieting, because he always ends up packing on some weight at favorite local restaurants.

“I always make a list of places I need to eat at before I come back!” he laughs. “The Mexican food is nothing here compared to Houston, to a Café Adobe or Pappasito’s. But it’s much better than when I was a kid. And don't get me started on missing Whataburger!”

Mark May & the Soul Satyr Horns perform Thursday, June 30 at Katie's Bar in Bacliff (315 Grand Avenue); Friday, July 1 at Shakespeare Pub (14129 Memorial); Saturday, July 2 at The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club (5731 Kirby); and Sunday, July 3 at the Backwoods Saloon in Conroe (230 Lexington Court).

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