The only biblical name dropped on Sean Michel’s latest album, Electric Delta—besides the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, that is—is Hosea. But one look at the long-haired, ZZ Top–bearded gospel-blues rocker suggests that the Old Testament hero with whom he most identifies is Samson.
“I was super clean cut when I was younger,” says the 34-year-old New Orleans native.
Then, during his junior year in college, he saw Jared Leto in the film Girl Interrupted.
“He had a sweet-looking beard. And I was like, ‘Man, that dude looks good with a beard. I’m going to try that.’”
It’s a good thing he did. It would be hard to imagine a super-clean-cut musician convincingly plying music as loud and wild as Michel’s. Deeply rooted in Mississippi blues, Electric Delta heads straight to the crossroads, goes toe-to-toe with the devil, and comes out on top.
Michel has visited the Delta before. In 2011, he set up shop at a church in Rolling Fork, Miss.—Muddy Waters’ hometown—to make Back to the Delta, an album of acoustic gospel blues recorded under the influence of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s 1966 gospel-blues classic, Amazing Grace.
Pleased with the results, Michel decided that for Electric Delta he would simply take five Back to the Delta songs (“The Curse Is Broken,” “Hosea Blues,” “He Is the One,” “Death Knockin’,” “Everything I Had”), add six others (a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” among them), crank the electricity, record everything to two-inch tape, and go for broke.
And, to make sure his engineer got the point, Michel played him a vinyl copy of Nirvana’s sonically relentless In Utero. “I said, ‘I want [Electric Delta] to be in people’s faces. I want it to be like we were in a boxing ring—a jab to the face, an uppercut, a hit in the gut in the middle, and then finishing out with a haymaker.”
Michel got what he wanted. His vocals and guitars roar and wail, Seth Atchley’s bass lines slither, and the appropriately surnamed Bradley Batterton drums up a levee-breaking storm.
So ferocious is Electric Delta that it might even supersede Michel’s heretofore highest-profile accomplishment: a brief run on American Idol in 2007.
“When I was in India, my manager walked into this Buddhist-run bar and was talking through things with the owner, who was kind of reluctant. Then, all of a sudden, my manager said, ‘He was on American Idol in Season Six.’ And the owner said, ‘What?” He went and checked on YouTube, then said, ‘Oh, please come tomorrow!’ And they treated us like kings.
“I ended up getting to play there most of the night, sharing the gospel.”
At 72, Eric Burdon is old enough to be Sean Michel’s father. But for several songs on Burdon’s latest album, the blues-soaked ’Til Your River Runs Dry (ABKCO), he and Michel could almost be brothers.
“Be careful, my friend, which side you feed,” recites the former Animals lead singer atop the loping beat of “Devil and Jesus.” “The monster inside soon will be revealed. / Now don’t be a fool and say it’s not true. / Either the devil or Jesus will tell you what to do.”
Burdon spends the other 11 songs choosing sides. Whether praying for the Lord to “ease [him] up to the middle of the air” (“In the Ground”) or quoting Genesis and wishing to be transported to “another world” (“River Is Rising”), the sense that he’s gotta serve somebody never abates. —A.O.