After years of playing on street corners and in cafés and honky-tonks, Mikel Miller drifted into Whitehorse in the 1980s.
With music inspired by Phil Ochs, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, he’s performed his variety of acoustic folk music through Canada and Alaska and found a home in the Yukon.
He has just released his new album with guitarist Kevin Bell, Twice Around… Still the Same.
With a voice that’s gristled with experience and truth and a rougher, scraggly beard, he appears to be the embodiment of that particular Northern personality: give him an axe and a gun and he’d be completely self-sufficient, living alone in a cabin he built himself.
To some extent, this is true. In the album notes, Miller proudly declares, in the words of his friend, the late poet Robbie Benoit, “This is yet another M.W.O.G.I project”. The acronym stands for “Made without government interference”.
That attitude is clearly reflected in his performance of the song “Something to Shoot”:
The things that I like about living here best… It’s having plenty of guns and something to shoot.
It’s also in the album’s format.
This is a live album, recorded one evening at an Orangeville, Ontario restaurant. While the music is clean and clear, you can still hear the ambient sounds of diners clinking cutlery and glasses, placing orders and chatting.
Many of the songs are introduced by Miller, and there’s even a spontaneous change in the set list as Miller asks Bell if he remembers how to play “Home Is Where the Heart Is”.
But that’s just one side of Miller. He’s actually sentimental and romantic, singing heartfelt songs about the people and places he loves—songs he either wrote himself or that were written by his late friend, Norm Hacking.
One of Miller’s own songs, “Leah’s Lullaby”, was written for his daughter:
Sometimes love can be heartless and cold/ But my love for her will stay and never grow old.
The album is largely a tribute to Hacking, featuring 11 songs by the Toronto songwriter, who died in 2007.
A close friend of Miller’s, Hacking wrote a song for Miller and his wife, “The Returning”:
I need you in the dark, babe/ And I need to talk soft/ Need to sleep in your arms/ And not feel so damned lost.
The delivery is understated. Miller’s strumming rhythm guitar is accompanied by Bell’s electric, providing some lead and flourishes. But the focus of this album is Hacking’s lyrics.
Miller sings Hacking’s “Songwriter’s Song” as a tribute to both Hacking and Benoit, who also died in 2007.
With some of the words altered to refer to Benoit’s celebration of life at the Westmark Whitehorse, the song reflects on how love lives on:
I’ll remember a friend in the way a song ends/ And hangs one last note in the air/That way you’ll always be there.
Like Benoit’s last party, this song is a “fine way of saying goodbye“.
The album ends with an a cappella recording of Hacking singing “When Vaudeville was the Rage”. With its tremolo and nostalgia, Hacking’s voice has a Stan Rogers quality.
Also dedicated to other musical figures such as Buddy Tabor and Willie P. Bennett, the album is a both a tribute to a songwriter and a celebration of songs.
Each time a song is performed as lovingly and sensitively as Miller and Bell do here, the songwriter voice will always live on.
Outstanding tracks: “Songwriter’s Song” and “When Vaudeville was the Rage”