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Mike Strauss' Electric Evolution 

Charlotte songwriter marks the anniversary of his first album, but he won't look back for long

It's fine if you think Gone Electric is the best album by Charlotte Americana singer/songwriter Mike Strauss. He just hopes you know that he's put out a handful of other albums since then. Of course, if you ask him which is his best, his answer is always the same — "The next one."

"I don't think I've gotten it right yet," the 44-year-old says, sitting on a couch in the living room of his Plaza Midwood-area home. "I'm getting there. People tell me [Gone Electric] is my best record, and I think — I've done six more since then. I'm proud of it, but I always think it's getting better."

Strauss actually prefers not to look back and always keeps his eyes focused on the road ahead, but when someone mentioned the 10th anniversary of Gone Electric this year, Strauss thought it might be a good idea to revisit it for a night. On Oct. 4, at the Evening Muse, Strauss will be joined by long-time bassist Jon Schigoda, original drummer Greg Lilley and a few guests for a retrospective of sorts.

"I'm going to get together with some of the people I haven't played with in a long time," Strauss says. "Kristen Campbell is going to sing some. Rick Spreitzer might play harmonica. I haven't played at the Muse in a while, not for any reason. We're going to have fun."

In a way, it makes sense that some people feel Gone Electric is Strauss' best album, in that it was such a snapshot of the Charlotte music scene at the time. Produced by Joe Kuhlmann, the album features a long list of guest spots by local musicians including David Childers, Michael Reno Harrell, Eric Lovell, David Howle and more.

In a 2005 Creative Loafing review, we said it "seemed to have dropped right down from heaven, it's smoky, melancholy, low-key, garage-folk vibe recalling early Dire Straits."

However, over the years, Strauss has continued to refine and build on that blues-infused Americana sound. These days, he's still playing with a who's who of Charlotte's music scene — Schigoda is still on bass, Randolph Lewis (Les Dirt Clods) on guitar, David Kim (Temperance League, Benji Hughes) on drums, Molly J. Brown (Fat Face Trio) on trombone and Matt Postle (Fat Face Trio) on trumpet. The band released its latest album, The Whole Skinny, earlier this year.

"I've been really lucky to play with great musicians for an extended period of time, who aren't in it for the money," Strauss says.

Strauss moved to Charlotte from West Virginia in 1998. Where he grew up, there wasn't an outlet for live music, but he always found himself in bands. He never saw the point in imitating others and always tried to write his own music. His wife Leslie eventually encouraged him to get back out there to play again after they moved to Charlotte.

Spotting a songwriter night at the Living Art in NoDa, which would later become the Evening Muse, Strauss headed out with his guitar to perform. That night's lineup featured David Childers and Michael Reno Harrell.

"When I was done, David came up to me and said he liked my music," Strauss says. "He invited me out to the Double Door's Americana night that they had at the time. Some of the people I met on that first night played on Gone Electric. It's all just grown from there."

While Strauss was working in the commercial sign business when he moved to Charlotte, he's now a stay-at-home dad for his 11- and 7-year-old daughters and working as a steady musician, playing a couple gigs a week around town and once a week at the Plaza Presbyterian Weekday School. In 2010, he was an organizer behind the Plaza Family Band, featuring different musician parents — Hope Nicholls, Sergio Agraz, Aaron Pitkin and others — who put together a band and CD as a fundraiser for the school.

Strauss rarely plays solo — he's often performing with a trio or the full six-piece band. If you ask which one he prefers, it's whichever one he's in that night.

"When I'm with the trio, I think this is how it should be," Strauss says. "When I'm in full band, I think the same thing. We play the same songs with either format."

Though there are Gone Electric songs worked into his sets on a regular basis, Strauss sat down to listen to the album for the first time in years about a month ago. He prefers not to listen to the old albums out of fear of hearing things he'll want to change. In the case of that first album, he also hears someone who was searching for who they were musically.

"I had to prepare myself to do it," he says. "In some ways, it feels like yesterday. It was a big production with a lot of people involved. I'm not going to stay in this looking back phase for very long. I'm very comfortable in where I am these days. We're still evolving and taking it somewhere. I still think that there's something out there we haven't captured yet."

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