Michael Phillips began a musical adventure early in his life that has seen him play roles in every dimension that popular song might provide. From side man to producer, from bass-playing back up, to front man guitarist, from chanting anthems inside a ten-piece band to singing lonely heartbroken serenades for stragglers in a darkened bar as the midnight bell tolls.
Every musician knows that late-night walk through deserted streets after the gig, but with a lifetime spent as a dedicated music man, Phillips knows them better than most and he loves every single step and every twist and turn.
Phillips has travelled the country, from Vancouver to Toronto to Halifax and back, in pursuit of a musical dream that awoke in him as kid learning on his dad’s guitar, but only after he stopped taking accordion lessons.
It was bass guitar that really turned up the heat up for Phillips and he played in garage punk bands doing original music only through to the mid ‘80s. It was then that he started playing guitar as his main instrument and began to perform in a series of three jug bands, first in Halifax, then Vancouver with the Hard Rock Miners, and finally landed back in Toronto with famed party band Jughead.
Through street busking and bars like the Horseshoe Tavern and Sneaky Dee’s, Jughead garnered a decent following.
Famed CBC talk show host Peter Gzowski fell in love with their tribute to Canada’s national game, “Hockey Song”, and by 1993 the song had become world famous, taking the band coast to coast as a high-energy, hard-driving, touring band. Stompin’ Tom Connors called them “One mean little street band.”
Meanwhile, Phillips had married and despite years of hard work decided it was time to get a ‘real job’ to support his young family, which brought him to Muskoka and later the Huntsville area. By this time, Phillips had immersed himself in music traditions from blues to bluegrass, country to punk, folk to rockabilly. This was a lasting foundation of his extraordinary talents which has allowed him to pursue a career, albeit part-time, in playing venues of every means and stature.
By the time his children were of school age, Phillips began to pursue his music work more diligently in the Muskoka area while still fulfilling his responsibilities as a parent. He realized quite early in his marriage that music had to be a critical part of his life activities for his mental health and well-being. During this period he began to resurrect his Mighty Lopez project and take to the stage, with various configurations, to play the songs associated with the Lopez brand such as “Tobacco Pouch” and “Benzedrine”.
Along with his reemergence as a solo act or band leader for his own material, Phillips was deeply involved with side projects with his dear friend Sean Cotton, appearing in such projects as Sean Cotton’s Doghouse and The Muskoka Connection, which is a backing band for several local original artists such as Pam Millar, Paul Lagendyk, and Riley Towns, and also supporting local groups such as Mad Raven Dinner Theatre and The Muskoka Rock Choir under the direction of Ian Crowley.
One of the more distinctive aspects of Phillips’s performance style and music is that he is brave enough to play a twelve-string guitar on stage, notorious for detuning in almost every stage setting. Phillips’s playing is sparked with bluegrass, blues and rock punctuations and riffs as his fingers glide effortlessly along the fret board.
Phillips is also a multi-instrumentalist, conversant on all forms of guitars: double bass and electric bass, ukulele, banjo, national steel guitar, mandolin and, of course, accordion. This allows him to tackle a phenomenal range of styles, genres, and songs. And songs are Phillips’s forte, his deepest gift and talent. He has an almost encyclopedic recall of tunes, ranging from Boxcar Willie, Hank Snow, and Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash and on and on. In a solo show, Phillips can go for hours, one song after the other without missing a beat. The other remarkable characteristic of his performance style is the camaraderie with the musicians with whom he shares the stage most notably with his friend and Dobro master, George Axon.
It was with Axon that he produced an astounding second album release of his own music in 2017, Tales from the Wood. The album explores a wide range of topics and styles with notable ease and the fluid expression of seasoned veterans working at the height of their powers. The songs are a collection self-penned and collaborations with Axon and other songwriters, including Sean Cotton. Phillips’s deep resonant voice rings out throughout the song stories, from social commentary to heart-wrenching loss and solitary yearning. Beautifully produced by Axon, the album features guest appearances by Phillips’s big brother Brigham Phillips, a long-time musical director for John McDermott and currently The Four Tenors, on the trumpet; Aidan Mason, long time guitarist for Anne Murray, on the fiddle; and Ed Roth, one time organist for Rick James. It is a delightful album deserving all the attention and praise it has received.
In 2019, Phillips teamed up with blues legend Po Cholly to produce and play on the very fine album Late One Evening which features not only Phillips but also singer extraordinaire Beverlie Robertson and blues pianist Julian Fauth. Po Cholly is a living Canadian blues icon and international star that Phillips has been friends with for many years. The album, while maintaining a laid-back, porch kind of feel, is an evening of blues, stories and exceptionally charming performances.
COVID-19 has presented Phillips with the same challenges that most working musicians have faced. The long awaited 20th anniversary Jughead reunion has been cancelled, as have all of his 2020 gigs and shows.
He has not been idle though throughout this crisis and has chosen the technology available to him to do weekly live shows on his Facebook feed, as well as produce a series of children’s songs inspired by his grandchildren, called Pop’s Music. All of these can be found at his website mightylopez.com.
In addition to live feed shows, Phillips has been exploring recording for YouTube videos, using his own expanding collection of recording gear. His song, days of isolation is a prime example of his creativity and determination to stay true to his art and his lifelong adventure.
Get to know Michael Phillips—The Mighty Lopez:
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