Michael Tolcher breaks out with help from famous friends

He's logged the

requisite thousands of miles playing to slowly building audiences in clubs across the country. But for Lovejoy native Michael Tolcher, it was at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary that he honed his performing skills.

"My dad used to be the chaplain there," Tolcher says, "and he invited me to play at some of their spiritual activities. [The inmates] weren't dancing around and drinking and not listening, they were very focused, so I had to become more focused."

That focus has served Tolcher well, propelling the Clayton County-based singer/songwriter to a deal with Octone Records. The result is I Am, a slick collection of radio-ready pop-rock numbers with a decidedly upbeat vibe.

"My philosophy is that the human spirit currently is a little suppressed," he says. "It's buried and distracted by our way of life, and my intention is to spark that spirit, to inspire it to act."

Tolcher's polished, positive ditties — all Dave Matthews affability infused with a Matchbox Twenty sense of melody — inspired some impressive names to help out: Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes and the Roots' ?uestlove make appearances, along with Tolcher's friend Gavin DeGraw.

Those performers' participation suggests they believe he's got a bright future. But Tolcher's biggest endorsement to date comes from an Atlanta inmate — and rapper Tupac Shakur's father — Mtulu Shakur, whom the singer met at the penitentiary.

"To a lot of my peers, reaching a broad level [of success] is an impossibility," Tolcher says. "But since he's seen it and lived it, it's much more a reality to him. He inspires me to pursue this path."

Michael Tolcher plays the Cotton Club Sat., May 22. 10 p.m. $10.