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Mark Miller A Life of Music

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As I watch him gently lift the perfectly-tuned guitars from their cases, I think 'This man treats his instruments as if they are his best friends.' He cradles them while his fingers fall over the strings and a smile appears on his face. If they could speak (and in his hands they can), they might ask, 'Are you going to make me sing, cry or laugh today?' On a typical night, they will do all three.

It's a gorgeous early summer day on the Bangor Waterfront and I'm meeting up with guitarist Mark Miller for a photo session near the water followed by a conversation over lunch at the Sea Dog Brewing Company next door.

We're here to talk about a series of upcoming concerts and to look back at the life and career of a Maine-born guitarist who some say is the best they've ever heard. He has made a living by playing music that he loves for the last 45 years.

We take a table in the back and share some conversation fuel - nachos and Capt'n Eli's Blueberry Pop. 'I just love this stuff!' Miller says with a laugh.

Mark Miller was born in Houlton but says memories of the 'Shiretown' are scant from that time. His family made a few moves early on, including one to Connecticut. Mirroring a transition that Mark has made several times in his life, the Millers quickly returned to Maine.

By age 4, he was living halfway between Houlton and Bangor in Mattwamkeag. It was here that he realized how important music was to his family. 'They all made music,' he remembers. 'My brothers Gareth and Gale were great at doing that Everly Brothers bell tone' harmony thing. I thought they were stars! My mother, Luella and sister, Deanne and father Roy - they all played and sang.'

Sometimes, the town would put on a talent show and Mark and his siblings would sign up to perform. 'That's where I first heard Karla Thibodeau. Even as a child, she was a singing sensation.'

Described as having 'the voice of an angel,' Karla Thibodeau went on to sing with Dick Curless and Buck Owens and later toured the world with Noel 'Paul' Stookey and his band. She passed away in 2011.

After learning some chords and a few guitar moves from his brothers, Mark started spending a lot of time practicing and trying to learn songs that he heard from his family and tunes he would pick up on the radio. The more he played, the better he got and people started to gravitate to him.

'I was quite shy as a kid, and the guitar helped me get friends,' he recalls. 'It was something I could do that I seemed to be good at and people liked it. It's hard when you're a kid especially when you're shy. I was doing something that not every kid was doing.' Doors began opening for Mark just at the time when something happened that would forever change him.

'In 1959, my mother died of cancer. She was 39 and I was 9,' Miller said with a hushed tone. 'That really set me back. I was already having kind of a hard time in school and things became even tougher.'

Losing the woman he describes as 'a living angel' caused Mark to become even more absorbed in music. He began living in a private world that he could control; one that he knew would never leave him. 'A traumatic experience when you're young can cause you to think you're not as good as other people,' he told me. Miller found solace in his guitar.

'I used to practice up to 12 hours a day, which helped with my technique,' he told me. I didn't really know a lot of music theory but I became good enough that my imagination would take me where I wanted to go on the guitar.'

At age 11, Mark started a band with an appropriate early '60s name The Stingrays. In high school, he had a popular group that specialized in playing the top 40 hits of the day The Variations. The band played the usual teen-band functions at school dances, VFW halls and recreation centers. It was a time when the charts and radio playlists featured some of everything. The Rolling Stones were heard next to Roger Miller, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert and Wilson Pickett.

As Miller listened and learned from the music of others, he found something that he liked in most every style, but there was one genre in particular that grabbed him by the heart blues.

Although he plays a variety of styles, most fans of Mark Miller think of him as a blues guitarist. 'It's music from the heart and that's what I always try to do - play from the heart,' he told me in a follow-up conversation. In short order, Miller became known astheblues guitar gunslinger in the state of Maine.

Miller cites a cornucopia of musical influences including Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Jeff Beck, pianist Keith Jarrett and a guitarist from the south with whom Miller has often been compared.

'Roy Buchanan is my favorite guitarist of all time and was a great influence,' he says. Miller's version of Buchanan's signature song 'The Messiah Will Come Again' is breathtaking. 'Roy's father was a preacher as was my grandfather,' Miller says. 'That gospel influence came out in his playing and it comes out in mine.'

I asked Miller to describe his music for someone who has never heard it. 'I think the root of my style is the spiritual and gospel thing. It goes right through my soul. I can't always express it with my voice, but I can with the guitar.'

Mark was recently voted 'Maine's Best Guitarist' on the website the Musician's Megabase.' Mark's blues band was also voted the best in the state. The 'best' title is one that Mark appreciates but is not entirely comfortable with.

'It's great that people voted and I appreciate that, but I've always been a little uncomfortable with compliments. I don't believe there is a 'best guitarist in Maine' or a 'best' anything. People have musicians that they like and that's great. To single one out and say that he's better than the others? I don't know about that.'

A career highlight was receiving the Lenny Breau Memorial Trophy in 1989. Miller was handed the award by the late jazz-great's mother. Mark knew Breau and remains close to his brother, Denny.

Through thousands of performances over the last 50-plus years, Mark Miller's guitar prowess has brought accolades from countless music lovers, including many famous names. The words that probably mean the most to Miller came from his friend Brad Delp, lead singer for Boston until his death in 2007.

In 1980, Mark was introduced to Brad through mutual friend Vini Contreas. 'Vini was recording demos and brought me and three other musicians to play on the sessions. I spent a week there and during that time Brad asked me to join a group he was putting together.'

Boston's notoriously lengthy spells between albums meant that Delp had time to fill. His group, with Mark on lead guitar, was called 'Howard Roark and The Architects,' named after the character in Delp's favorite film, 'The Fountainhead.'

In the mid-'80s, Boston was working on the record that became 'Third Stage.' 'Brad decided he wanted to do a solo album so I worked on it with him,' Miller remembers. 'The music was a lot of fun, but the best part was the friendship. He was such a great guy so real and down to earth. Not a lot of people in music who reach that level of success stay that grounded.' Mark contributed guitar to Delp's solo project a project three years in the making. While those tapes remain unreleased, a series of nine videos from the sessions can be seen and heard by doing a YouTube search on 'Brad Delp Mark Miller.' The pair remained close. When Miller was married, Brad happily fulfilled the best man position at his wedding.

Not long before his death, Delp drove from his home in Atkinson, New Hampshire, to a recording studio in Hallowell, where Miller had set up shop to record his latest CD, 'Whatcha Gonna Do.' Over two recording sessions, Delp contributed lead and backing vocals to the project. 'He was the king of kindness and I miss him every day,' Miller says.

Mark's band has opened for B.B. King twice, most recently in 2011 on the Bangor Waterfront. Other high-profile appearances included shows with Johnny Winter, Taj Mahal, Peter Wolf, Pat Travers, Jonathan Edwards and Waylon Jennings.

There really are two Mark Millers, and they are altogether divergent performers. Mark Miller on electric guitar is a vastly different experience to the one who straps on an acoustic guitar. While both Mark Millers will be appearing in concert this summer, the latter is more frequently seen for reasons of practicality.

'I reinvented myself with a style of playing acoustic music alone in order to make a living,' he told me. 'I like to play in an environment where people come to listen to the music. No cell phones, no TV. They really want to listen.'

An original song that has brought much attention to Mark is a tribute to the state of Maine. 'Back in Maine,' co-written with Wayne Hendsbee of Augusta, matches a pretty melody with imagery that captures the essence of why most of us choose to live here.

Miller was invited to perform the song at the Blaine House for then-Gov. John Baldacci. In 2006, the governor nominated Miller to serve a three-year term on the Maine Arts Commission.

In 2010, Mark performed 'Back in Maine' on 'The Nite Show with Danny Cashman,' which airs Saturday nights on WABI TV 5. 'I love the Cashmans and it was an honor to play at Danny's wedding and to be on his show,' Miller says.

In May of this year, Miller was invited by anchor Jim Morris to perform 'Back in Maine' on WABI TV News at 5. 'Jim loves music and comes from a very musical family,' Miller told me. 'Two of his siblings are among the greatest singers I've ever heard.' On TV 5, Miller was accompanied by old friend Bob Fillian. Close musical companions for decades, Fillian sits in with Miller when his schedule allows.

Mark has tested waters beyond Maine a few times over the years, including a period when he lived in Austin, Texas. 'Probably the best music city I've ever visited,' he said. 'I ended up getting pneumonia there but I had the opportunity to play with Dale Watson, my favorite country artist.'

'I have a hard time leaving here, don't I?' Miller says with a laugh. 'I do love Maine. It's safer here.' Miller is a mainstay at venues including The Big Easy at The Charles Inn, where he performs on the first Friday of each month. 'Paul and Connie Beaulieu have been consistently supportive of me and my music,' he says.

Mark Miller also performs regularly at Homeport Inn and Mermaid Restaurant in Searsport, in Machias at Skywalkers Bar and Grille on Main St. and at The Whistling Pig Smokehouse on Main St. in Bangor. In the past, he has been a frequent performer at Nocturnem Draft Haus on Main St. in Bangor. 'Gene Beck is a great music lover,' Miller told me.

Over the past year, Miller has spent many days visiting with, and playing guitar for, a particularly close friend. 'She is very dear to me and has been in the hospital for a long time. I feel so grateful and appreciative just to be healthy. No matter where you are or how much money you make, being healthy is the most important thing. And having my friends around me is important too.'

Miller will perform with some of his friends at a series of upcoming acoustic concerts. 'They are people who are important to me and they're great players and singers,' he says. 'You'll hear a little bit of everything. Some blues, some country-flavored things. Spanish-flavored, folk music. I don't like labels. When you're like me and mix in a little of everything, it's harder to define but better for listening.'

Mark Miller Upcoming Performances

Friday, July 4: An acoustic performance at The Big Easy at the Charles Inn in downtown Bangor.

Friday, July 11: East Millinocket Celebration Concert from 6 to 8 p.m. An electric performance with the group Rumble Strip from Machias.

Saturday, July 12: Bangor Grange Hall on Ohio Street from 7 to 9. Call 973-3976 for more information. An acoustic concert billed as 'Mark Miller and Friends.' Tickets will be available at the door and includes dinner. 'I'm looking forward to doing more shows like this where people who really love music come to listen.'

Saturday, July 19: 'Home at the Grange' concert in Lee from 7 to 9. A 'Mark Miller and Friends' acoustic concert. 'This is one of the most wonderful venues I've ever played,' Miller says.

Sunday, July 27: The Whistling Pig Smokehouse on Main St. in Bangor.

Saturday, Aug. 9: An electric show with Rumble Strip in Eastport. The band will open for Dick Dale, 'King of the Surf Guitar,' at Rossport Farms, 44 Old Toll Bridge Road. The 27th annual 'Guitars by the Sea' festival will feature 12 bands and is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on a 64-acre salt water farm. Camping is available and more info is available at 321-9071

Saturday, Sept. 6: An acoustic concert for the Garland Days celebration in Garland.

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor)

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 July 2014 20:56


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