Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Mike Zito - Live From The Top

He’s been a busy fella this last year or so, has Mike Zito.  What with launching new label Gulf Coast Records with his partner Guy Hale, producing albums for a number of their artists, and releasing a tribute album to Chuck Berry in collaboration with a bundle of other blues honchos.  So when’d he find the time to go recording a live album?
Answer - he didn’t.  Live From The Top is a reissue of a live album recorded at the after-party from the 2010 Blues From The Top Festival in Colorado – and a reminder of just how good Mike Zito can be. 
Mike Zito - havin' a guitarin' good time
The show kicks off with ‘Natural Born Lover’, one of nine tracks from the 2009 studio album Pearl River, which sets out Zito’s stall very nicely, thank you very much.  A relaxed bit of bumpin’ an’ grindin’, its warm sound accommodates Zito’s easy-going voice, a skidding slide solo, and a sax break from his long-time buddy Jimmy Carpenter, as well as folding in small spoonfuls of ‘You Shook Me’ and ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’.  And from there right through to the close with the fun boogie of Elmore James’ ‘Ice Cream Man’, scudding slide and all, Zito and his confreres deliver a swingingly good time.
So consistent is Live From The Top that picking out highlights ain’t easy.  But it’s worth noting how Zito can nudge the blues envelope in different directions to good effect, as with the quirkily jazzy ‘Dead Of Night’ on which John Morris knocks out an oom-pah-pah bass line that could easily come from a tuba, while Zito wraps some witty, nimble guitar around a lyric about “dancing on the beach in the dead of night”.  And the following ‘C’mon Baby’ – in what, 6/8 time? – begs for a waltz-like turn around the room with its yearning, romantic feel.
‘One Step At A Time’ seems like a straightforward enough animal in its evocation of this particular bluesman’s recovery from alcoholism.  But with Zito twirling out bright, ringing chords while Morris’s bass carries the riff, and a wonderful sax solo from Carpenter, it reaches out towards Tom Petty or John Hiatt territory.  (It ain’t gonna happen, but the thought has occurred to me now and then that if he put his mind to it, and the cards were to fall his way, Zito has got the songwriting juice to break out beyond the blues to a wider audience.)
As always, Zito has a knack for funkiness too, whether it’s ‘Big Mouth’, on which the guitar,
Aaaaand . . . relax!
bass and drums get a sweet groove on while he delivers a typically funny lyric about relationship problems, or the slinky ‘Sugar Sweet’, which is right in the wheelhouse of guest Ana Popovic, who delivers an almost voicebox-like wah-wah solo before the two of them get down to some conversational guitar duetting.  And there’s more where that came from.
There’s great blues too of course, such as the dark and sombre ‘Pearl River’, with its references to Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, the purposeful grind of ’19 Years Old’, with slicing slide guitar from guest Nick Moss and chirping, growling and squeaking harp from Curtis Salgado.  And guitar aficionados will appreciate Zito’s substantial and expressive exploration on ‘All Last Night’.  But whatever they’re serving up, fanfares are also required for the drumming of Rob Lee, who delivers rock solid but supple rhythmic foundations from start to finish.
But you know what?  However you cut this particular cake, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Meaning:  Live From The Top gets you in the room with an audience having a few beers, having a few laughs, dancing their asses off, and generally having a damn good time.  And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.

Live From The Top is released in Britain by Gulf Coast Records on 12 January.
The videos of 'Big Mouth' and 'Pearl River' are taken from different performances in 2010, with the same band as on Live From The Top.

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