Mike Milligan has a great smile. It’s toothy, wide and communicates his warm and approachable personality. When he walks on stage, though, all of that vanishes. Once he grabs that microphone and takes center stage, Mike Milligan is six feet two inches of energy, growl and talent. A consummate frontman, he grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until he and his band are done with you.
Mike Milligan and the Altar Boyz have been performing “Texas Blues with Louisiana Attitude” in Austin and around the country for more than eight years, rolling out a unique blend of music that is equal parts blues, rock, bayou and pure energy. Powered by Mike’s amazing four and a half octave vocal range and unique vocal tone, you find yourself being impressed with the band as a whole and with Mike himself as a frontman.
Then, he uncorks the harmonica. The sheer level of fury and staccato punches to the face he blows through that instrument will leave you breathless. Mike pulls sounds from his “Hohner Special 20” harmonicas (different harmonicas for different keys) that vary between powerful, low and sweet, and even tortured as he squeezes, twists, coaxes and wrangles notes and tones from the instrument, bending and stretching beyond capacity for thought.
I have personally witnessed open mouthed awe fall across a club when he starts playing. Conversations stop in mid-sentence, never to be revisited. You owe it to yourself to experience what this man does to your definition of “playing a harmonica.” I promise you, that definition won’t be the same once he finishes.
The Altar Boyz
Now, to be sure, there are lots of guys who can play a decent harmonica, and more than that who can sing. So what is it that makes Mike Milligan and the Altar Boyz so special? Mike presents a level of professionalism and talent that few have seen, but before going any further we should talk about the Altar Boyz. Every great frontman needs a great band, and I think you’ll agree with me that the Altar Boyz are world class.
Bass player Leland Parks is left handed. He plays a custom-made, left-handed and inverted bass that he plays upside down, and has been with the group since the beginning – over eight years ago. He’s been in the Austin music scene for more than 35 years, and has played with legends like Johnny Winters, Buddy Guy and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. He even has a great story about taking Paul McCartney’s bass out of its case and plunking on it in 1965 after a Beatles concert!
Mike Skiffington rounds out the rhythm section. Hearing him, Leland and Mike all locked into a tight 6/8 groove rolling along at a nice 120 bpm [beats per minute] clip is a real treat. Mike brings originality and variety with his approach to the drums, while not going overboard and making a drum show out of a gig.
Nate Boff is the newest member of the band. He plays an outstanding Fender Stratocaster, ripping off blistering solos that measure up quite well to Mike’s face-peeling harmonica work. His rhythm playing is very good as well, sustaining the groove when it’s time.
Mike Milligan and the Altar Boyz have a new album of 11 new songs written by Mike (four are co-writes) called My Time. They played several songs from the album on Monday night at their weekly gig, hosting the most respected jam in Austin. “Blue Monday” at Maggie Mae’s has been around since 2006. Attracting the top talent in town, even Gary Clark Jr. joined them on stage on April 2, 2013.
I highly recommend all of their songs (they played “Trouble’s Coming,” “You Don’t Know Me” and “She’s My Woman,” among others), but I particularly enjoyed “Boogie Woogie Back Beat Social Club.” Like many of Mike’s songs, it has the kind of stops, intro and other rhythmic elements that can only be performed by a band that is tight, or “in the pocket,” at a very high level. These guys certainly fit the bill on that score.
Bottom line, go see Mike Milligan and the Altar Boyz. If you have friends in town, make yourself a hero and take them to one of Mike’s shows. There’s a good chance you’ll never hear the end of it.
Photos courtesy of Mike Milligan and the Altar Boyz on MySpace. Cover photo via Flickr CC, courtesy of Gary J. Wood.