Caravans – don’t you just hate ‘em? Bloody pain to overtake when you’re on a long journey. But then there’s the Ruf Records Blues Caravan, on which three Ruf artists tour together, which is a rather more enticing proposition. And since I’m due to catch the 2018 edition in a few weeks, featuring Mike Zito, Bernard Allison and Vanja Sky, I reckoned it was time I boned up on their latest material.
Mike Zito has been a go-to artist for me ever since I cottoned to his albums Gone To Texas and Pearl River, and my favourite album of 2015 was his Keep Coming Back, a rock’n’rollin’ affair chock full of great songs. This year saw him release First Class Life, and while it’s not Keep Coming Back it still has some great moments, not least on the guitar front, where Zito is on terrific form right from the gritty, slithering slide attack of opener ‘Mississippi Nights’.
|Mike Zito gives himself back problems
The centrepiece of the album is ‘Old Black Graveyard’, a moody, spooky number that’s the most intense offering here, built on a repetitive, undulating motif and long, haunting slide notes that eventually build into a squealing danse macabre of a solo.
Other treats include the laid back ‘I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog (The Way You Treat Me)’, on which Zito shows off his relaxed way with something reflective, the swinging blues of ‘Dying Day’, with its strutting bass line from Terry Dry, and the witty ‘Back Problems’, a funky affair of the kind he’s shown a talent for before with the likes of ‘Break A Leg’.
From a musical perspective ‘The World We Live In’ is a delightful slow blues, though lyrically its passive outlook on life’s travails, and referencing of the afterlife as a comfort, don’t do it for me. ‘Mama Don’t Like No Wah-Wah’, a co-write with guest guitarist Bernard Allison about the latter’s experience playing with Big Mama Thornton, is a bit of innocent fun – riddled with wah-wah, of course – even though it verges on the corny. No such qualms about the closing ‘Trying To Make A Living’ though, on which Zito dons his blues suede shoes to knock out some sparkling rock’n’roll.
First Class Life didn’t grab me in the same way as Keep Coming Back, but it’s a grower – and I’m looking forward to seeing Mike Zito and his infectious grin onstage again.
Have to admit I’ve never actually listened to Bernard Allison before collaring his latest album Let It Go, though I’ve been aware of him, and of the fact that he’s the son of Luther Allison – two of whose songs, ‘You’re Gonna Need Me’ and ‘Castle’, close out the album.
The immediate impression on the opening ‘Cruisin For A Bluesin’ is of a Howlin’ Wolf-ish riff mashed up with a Robert Cray vocal. Allison’s rich, buttery voice has a few more rough edges than Smooth Bob though, which is fine by me, with additional character in the form of
an intermittent lisp. The following ‘Same Old Feeling’, with its descending guitar and bass figure, gravitates even further towards laid-back, grooving Cray territory.
|Bernard Allison gets spiritual
Elsewhere there’s a large dollop of funk in the Allison cookbook, from the loose-limbed bump’n’grind of ‘Backdoor Man’, with occasional injections of groaning voicebox by the sound of it, to the oh-so AWB-like ‘Night Train’ with its ticking rhythm guitar, neck-snapping riff, tripping drums from Mario Dawson, and piercing guitar breaks.
The rendition of Brooks Benton’s ‘Kiddeo’ is finger-snappingly cool and immaculately phrased, with brittle-toned jazzy guitar, and completely blows away Mike Vernon’s recent version. There’s a crunching quality to the riff on ‘Leave Your Ego’, a mid-tempo co-write with fellow Chicagoan soul-blues brother Ronnie Baker Brooks, underscored by a howling solo.
‘Blues Party’ is a straightforward chug-along based on the rather cheesy premise of all the deceased blues greats jamming in Club Heaven, but goofy fun for all that. Much more interesting is the reading of Luther Allison’s ‘You’re Gonna Need Me’, which evokes BB King in both the resonant quality of the vocal and the restrained, pinpoint guitar playing, and would have made a stronger closing track than the rather middle-of-the-road acoustic fare of ‘Castle’. Let It Go could be more consistent, but overall it's an impressive affair, with a sound as good as you might expect from top-flight producer Jim Gaines.
Young Croation guitarist and singer Vanja Sky is very much the junior partner in this company, but she gives a good account of herself on her debut album Bad Penny – boldly opening the proceedings by borrowing the title track from Rory Gallagher. And while you’d have to be a bloody genius to stand comparison with Rory, it has to be said that she gives it a good shot.
As a vocalist Sky isn’t in the Sam Fish league, but her voice does have a throaty appeal, and her delivery has personality, whether on the likeable if clichéd straight up boogie of 'Hard Working
|Vanja Sky gets her guitar in a twist
Bernard Allison’s ‘Low Down And Dirty’ is a high-energy good-time blues romp though, with both Zito and Allison (uncredited) contributing on vocals. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zito is also at least partly responsible for the bonanza of slide playing on the track, but if it’s all down to Ms Sky then full marks for that. I certainly expect that it’s a popular party piece when the three of them play together live on Blues Caravan duty.
‘Give Me Back My Soul’ may not be very imaginative, but it’s still a well-delivered slice of strutting ‘I know it’s only rock’n’roll but I like it’ stuff. ‘Do You Wanna’ essays a promising bit of offbeat funkiness, and confirms that Sky knows more than one way around the fretboard. Lyrically it might be primary school stuff but hey, I’ll cut her some slack this time around.
The quality control department should really have kicked the likes of the Girlschool-ish ‘Don’t Forget To Rock N Roll’ and the plodding ‘Crossroads Of Life’ into touch though. Still and all, with quality backing from the likes of Terry Dry (yes, him again too) and Dave Smith on bass, Matthew Johnson and Yonrico Scott on drums, and Lewis Stephens on keys, there are enough positives in Bad Penny to suggest that Vanja Sky has the potential to develop further.