Every musician has an influence. In the case of blues musician Michaela Rae (aka Michaela Rae Knox), her love for Stevie Ray Vaughan couldn’t be any more obvious. However, for all she lacks in originality, she makes up for with passionate playing. And while you’d hope all musicians would bring such qualities to their work, the professionalism on display throughout Rae’s debut is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was recorded when she was just thirteen years old. ‘Blues With a Backbone’ sounds surprisingly proficient for someone so young.
Throughout the Santana inspired slow burner ‘Sin Nombre’, Rae’s guitar lines are smooth and full of emotion. The accompanying bass and drums are nice and high in the end mix, giving a “live in the studio” vibe – each element of this soulful number works excellently. A Texan blues groove is the driving force behind ‘Big Easy Blues’ where Rae’s band pulls out all the stops – Matt Henderson’s drum shuffles driving the piece are energetic and Michael Olson’s bass lines are rock solid. Rae, meanwhile, lays down some confident but unfussy guitar on a number with a great all-round feel.
‘Trust In You’ opens with a fluid lead and a groove which would befit BB King’s latter day work. The music has drive and enough punch to grab the attention and then the album’s weak link presents itself. As Ms Rae begins to sing, it becomes painfully obvious she’s only fourteen. Her voice is high pitched and incredibly childlike and it’s certainly not meant to sing the blues. And when used to deliver lyrics like ‘I learnt about the planet / Learnt about the stars / Learnt about pollution that comes from cars’, it gives the air of a sophisticated blues workout performed for Sesame Street. Her vocal isn’t any better on the pounding Stevie Ray number ‘Phonebook Song’, but some scorching lead guitar soon leaves any vocal shortcomings in the shade. Throughout most of this six minute number, Rae’s guitar leads are amazing, full of reverb and vibrato and carrying enough feeling to make you realise she means business.
A cover of ‘Green Onions’ is workmanlike – not quite having the soul of Booker T’s organ-filled original cut, naturally – but Rae and band give it their best shot. The bass pumps things along and the drums come equipped with the required amount of swing. Rae doesn’t sound as comfortable here as she does on her own material; for the first half of the number, her playing is a little jagged, with a few notes having too much of a staccato quality.
Naturally, given her style, Rae sounds far more at home on a run-through of Buddy Guy’s ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Hearing Rae and co work their way through the number, it sounds effortless, almost like they’ve been playing it forever. Once again, most of Rae’s lead work is commendable and her band tight, even if the words sound rather trite when delivered in a young teen’s voice. ‘Backbone Blues’, another instrumental, brings nothing new to the table, but is certainly a highlight with regard to guitar playing. Here, Rae performs complex blues runs and solos with ease, during a performance which ought to entertain all but the most stubborn blues fan.
‘Blues With a Backbone’ features some great tunes and often superb guitar work. These elements should be enough for a blues/blues-rock fan to check out the album. Sadly, Rae’s vocal style really lets the side down. Her child-like vocal is completely at odds with such muscular, mature musical performances. I know a vocal maturity shouldn’t really be expected from a thirteen year old, but a it isn’t completely out of the question: one of her closest musical peers, Shannon Curfman, recorded her debut at a similar age (she was only fourteen), and her vocal is chock-full of grit and certainly a match enough for the likes of Bonnie Raitt.
It’s such a shame Rae wasn’t content with putting out a fantastic disc of blues guitar instrumentals, or hiring a more experienced vocalist for her recorded work. ‘Blues With a Backbone’ more hints at Michaela Rae’s potential…but shows she’s not quite ready just yet.