Thursday, February 17, 2022

Mike Zito - Blues For The Southside

Full disclosure.  First, I think Mike Zito is great.  One of those artists you like right away and you root for them from then on.  But casting an eye over the track listing for Blues For The Southside, his first live album since 2014’s Songs For The Road, my initial reaction isn’t unbridled glee.  I’m seeing three tracks from 2016’s so-so Make Blues Not War, four from the subsequent First Class Life, a couple from the excellent Gone To Texas, three everybody-plays-‘em covers (‘Voodoo Chile’?  Really?), and three titles that don’t mean anything to me.  Nothing from Keep Coming Back, or from Quarantine Blues or Resurrection, his two most recent releases before this set was recorded last autumn.  Three albums full of great stuff, and they don’t get a freakin’ look in!  Aw c’mon Mike, what’re you doin’ to me man?
Well, let’s play this thing and see how it goes.
Mike Zito ponders the never-ending road
Pic by Danya Artimisi
Okay, I get it.  What this is, is Mike Zito delivering a really big guitar album.  And that’s cool, because as much as my appreciation of him is also down to his song-writing and characterful vocals, Zito is a guitar player who’s way better than the average bear, Boo Boo.
Let’s talk about ‘Voodoo Chile’ for a minute, because praise be, this ain’t the re-tread of '. . .(Slight Return)' that I anticipated and many a guitar freak would perpetrate.  Nope, this is a monster of a slow blues rendition of the lesser-spotted non-Slight Return version, a six-foot deep groove worthy of Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea.  Oh yeah, and Eric Gales steps up to guest on it.  It’s Gales, I’m guessing, whose ducking and diving solo collides with a mountainous descending riff, before scrabbling around it as if searching wildly for a foothold.  Then their two guitars bend and warp that riff out of shape before easing off, in readiness for a tense and wiry Zito excursion that leads to the two guitars wrestling with each other all the way to the finish.  It all makes for an absorbing, enthralling, 12-minute outing.
There’s guitar showmanship of a different kind from Zito on 'Blues For The Southside' itself, a new instrumental on which Zito delivers a delightful showcase of lyrical, thematic guitar early on, then later gets into more expansive mode, folding in hints of something Celtic en route to a speedy, spiralling passage with superb clarity of tone.  Then eventually he downshifts into a final segment that sparkles like reflections from a mirrorball.  It’s so good that one might say it makes the following cover of ‘Texas Flood’ redundant, except that the latter features a suspenseful solo, like a guy doing a high wire act in which he shifts forward from one moment of teetering drama to the next.  These may be lengthy tracks, but they’re not noodle zones, they’re purposeful.
There’s more energetic fare on the opening ‘Mississippi Nights’, with Zito’s guitar bouncing off the piano playing of Lewis Stephens, and the pair then criss-crossing like a pair of jitterbugging dancers.  And when Zito gets to soloing, his playing here – slide guitar included – is fiery, vibrant stuff, as it is on the following 'First Class Life'.  Later, ‘Highway Mama’ redoubles that energy, with Zito and his guesting buddy Tony Campanella powering along on a hard-as-nails descending riff.  The two guitars trade off each other, giving it large with bursts of wah-wah, until all concerned whack the thing into submission at the end.
There are two Willie Dixon-style stop-time riffers, in the form of Zito’s own ‘Make Blues Not War’, which is a bit prosaic in spite of the laudable lyric, and a tough reading of Tampa Red’s ‘Love Her With A Feeling’ – one of those titles I didn’t recognise.  It’s sassier and more emphatic than versions by Tampa Red himself, Freddie King, and more recently Bernie Marsden, but then eases into syncopated drums and bass from Matt Johnson and Doug Byrkit over which Zito lays out a mazy solo.
And then there are the different kinds of Zito song that are part of his particular charm.  ‘Hell On Me’ is loose-limbed, intriguing storytelling over an easy groove, that then picks up energy with a rollicking organ solo from Lewis Stephens, while Johnson’s drums snap at his heels and Zito knocks out spiky chords.  The following ‘Back Problems’ offers some quintessential Zito funkiness, funny lyrics about everyone being on his back, and a conversational solo that does a fair impression of a sniping, nagging partner.  Later, on ‘Dying Day’, he and his band turn into swingin’ cats as this time he spells out his commitment to his woman.  Zito serves up some stinging licks as an appetiser, and Stephens steps in with a playful organ solo.  Then they take a breath that sets up some relaxed, witty guitar from Zito over jazzy strokes of piano, strolling bass and behind-the-beat drums.  It’s great fun, as is the bouncing ‘The Road Never Ends’, on which Dave Katz guests to allow two guitars to get going in tandem, before counterpointing each other to the finish line.
There’s some other stuff too, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.  This is a double live album – an hour and three-quarters worth – that simply has lots and lots to enjoy.  If you liked, say, Gary Moore’s Live From London, then there are more than enough guitar fireworks exploding here to keep you happy.  But for me this live set is even better than that.  A couple of tracks may be inconsequential, but over the piece Blues For The Southside is blessed with the variety, and the light and shade, to grab your attention and keep it.  Like I said, Mike Zito is great.
Blues For The Southside is released by Gulf Coast Records on 18 February.
Mike Zito is touring Britain until 26 February - details available here.

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