Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Mike Zito And Friends - Rock'N'Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry

Doubtless some folk will think that putting together an album that revisits a bundle of Chuck Berry’s hits – 20 of ‘em, to be precise – is a redundant exercise.  Others are liable to see the unique selling point of this album as the range of guest guitarists on display, including the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Robben Ford and Eric Gales.
For me though, one of the key attractions is that Mike Zito has made an old-fashioned rock’n’roll record.  See, while Zito is rightly appreciated as a leading modern-day bluesman, his 2015 album Keep Coming Back, made with his then band The Wheel, was very much a
Mike Zito - Let It Rock!
rock’n’rollin’ affair.  Hell, it even featured a cover of Bob Seger’s ‘Get Out Of Denver’, a direct descendant of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ if ever there was one.  It was also, as I have never tired of pointing out, my favourite album of 2015.  In short, Mike Zito’s affinity for this brand of rock’n’roll is the catalyst for a tribute album that captures the fun, energy and magic of Chuck’s music while giving it a modern sound.
And to some extent, all those guest guitar honchos are an unnecessary distraction, because with songs as good as ‘Rock And Roll Music’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Back In The USA’ and all the rest, all a pro like Zito needs to do is wind ‘em up and crank ‘em out.  You can’t lose.  Though it’s fair to say that many of them in fact make contributions that merrily catch the Chuck Berry spirit.
Fittingly, the album opens with W.C. Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’, celebrating the hometown of both Chuck and Mike, and here with an on the money lead guitar slot from Chuck’s grandson Charles Berry III.  It also sets the standard for the fundamentals of what follows, with a lively rhythm laid down by Matthew Johnson on drums, backed up by Terry Dry on bass, while Lewis Stephens whacks out some pounding piano.  And as on several other tracks, there are horn interjections to add further highlights, though any horn players seem to be uncredited.  And Zito’s voice, it’s worth emphasising, is an excellent fit for these songs.
Early highlights for me include the aforementioned ‘Rock And Roll Music’, on which Joanna Connor delivers some slithering slide guitar while backing up Zito on vocals, and the horns bring Hispanic hints to the fray.  Walter Trout gets very much in the mood on ‘Johnny B Goode’, duetting with Zito in rabble rousing fashion before the two of them cut loose simultaneously on guitar.  Meanwhile Anders Osborne reflects the more laid back vibe of ‘Memphis’ with some relaxed, sparkling slide that’s witty in tone as it plays around with the melody.
‘You Never Can Tell’ and ‘Back In The USA’ both illustrate Berry’s quality as a lyricist, respectively a perfect little short story of young love conveyed in a couple of minutes, and a brashly energetic, neon-lit collage of Fifties America, sizzling burgers and all.  Robben Ford
Eric Gales - one of 21 guest guitarists reeling' and rockin'
decorates the former with playful guitar, finding unusual angles, while Eric Gales reins in his usual whirlwind self on the latter, catching the mood with pinging playing over pummelling drums from Johnson.
Luther Dickinson brings a fresh guitar tone to ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and doubles up on vocals with Zito entertainingly on the tongue-twisting lyric, while Stephens gets down to some rootin’ and tootin’ on piano.  Contrastingly, Sonny Landreth scatters woozy slide licks around with restraint on ‘Havana Moon’, respecting its dreamy salsa feel.
‘Downbound Train’ is an interestingly dramatic slow turn at the story of a hellbound loco, with spot on spooky guitar licks over ticking drums, though Alex Skolnick perhaps gets too modern in feel in his hurtling solo.  And ‘Thirty Days’ also strikes a different chord, featuring Albert Castiglia on its very country-leaning twanging.
There’s plenty of other good stuff too, but the album has its imperfections, just like Chuck himself.  The song selection could have been better, eschewing the fluff of ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ and one or two lesser tracks in favour of the mysteriously absent ‘Little Queenie’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.  And the treatment of the slower ‘Wee Wee Hours’ is a real aberration - I’m no Joe Bonamassa-hater, but Zito really should have asked him what in the Sam Hill he thought he was doing slathering the song in a succession of full throttle guitar breaks that bear little relation to a Chuck Berry vibe.
But those concerns aren’t enough to spoil an album that’s a fitting, fun tribute to one of the giants of rock’n’roll music.  So kudos to Mike Zito for that, and for delivering what to these ears is the most enjoyable thing he’s done since Keep Coming Back.

Rock’N’Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry is released by Ruf Records on 1 November.

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