The singer/songwriter/guitarist Mike Mizwinski, better known as Mike Miz, took a major step by moving to Nashville three years ago. Miz has a strong following in his native Northeastern Pennsylvania as a jam band icon, from early band Morning Pride to his various Miz band lineups to Phish and Grateful Dead tributes and the progressive jazz-fusion group Gongzilla. He has played to thousands at The Peach Festival in Scranton and opened many shows for the hybrid bluegrass band Cabinet. This writer saw him do a wonderful Grateful Dead tribute show at the Briggs Farm Blues Fest in 2021 and also in solo performance, delivering some of the first songs he recorded in Nashville. Despite some of those successes, his road has not been an easy one, marked by substance abuse, lost love, scuffles with the law, recovery, and coming to terms with his musical identity and future. Suffice it to say he has arrived with Only Human.
At heart, Miz is a rocker. His dream was to assemble the best musicians he knew in Nashville for this record and along with producers Brook Sutton and Ted Pecchio, he assembled a dizzying seventeen in the credits including Jano Rix, Sadler Vaden, and Nicki Bluhm among them, recording live to tape at The Wood Brothers studio. The opening “Hand of the Sculptor” presages a loud record, featuring the piano of Michael Borowski, Laur Joamets’ slide guitar, and Amber Woodhouse’s harmonies as he sings of the now dormant coal mining area where he grew up. The title track takes inspiration from Mark Knopfler’s Dire Straits period, as Miz in autobiographical mode as he is often here, observes his helpless stance as a relationship dissolves. The guitar solo comes from Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit lead guitarist, Sadler Vaden. The sonics recede a bit for the punchy “Hell in the Hallway,” performed with Nicki Bluhm. The song challenges colloquialisms and raises questions such as “…how come you can’t keep a hound dog from running when he’s got food and water right there at the house?” Miz and the band rev up again for “Six Ways from Sunday,” featuring guitarist Sol Littlefield as Miz tries to sweep away the ugly past of addiction and life on the run.
We do hear a few acoustic tunes such as standout “Understand,” reminiscent to this writer of his acoustic set at Briggs Farm. Here he sings about returning to his hometown and trying to put the puzzle back together in terms of how life began to unravel. The pedal steel (C.J. Colandrea) driven “Wander Blue” has an indelible, majestic, sweeping melody while the poignant “Less Than Paper Thin” caps this terrific three-song sequence with Miz literally contemplating his last days from a hospital bed, longing for an absent lover with whom to spend his last moments. That one calls for a breather and indeed we hear Miz’s stellar acoustic picking in the instrumental “Inn Between.”
“You Make Me Feel” sees Miz continuing his existential quest as Borowski’s piano and Rix’s organ mingle perfectly, with the last notes connoting a haunting feeling. Miz and crew wipe that all away with the rollicking closer, “Tail Lights” as he sings in duet with Jared Reynolds.
While the album is undoubtedly cathartic and redemptive, Miz proves his mettle as a songwriter. The sequence of “Understand,” “Wander Blue,” and “Less Than Paper Thin’ is the strength of this record. The rockers will get your blood stirring but those songs will conjure a myriad of emotions.
- Jim Hynes
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