Sunday, February 27, 2022

Mike Zito - The Cluny, Newcastle, 24 February 2022

It must be eight years or more since I first saw Mike Zito play live.  A tanker load of water has passed under the bridge since then, of course.  That show was with his then band The Wheel, featuring his pal Jimmy Carpenter on sax, but that line-up floated off to the great gig in the sky a few years ago.  Tonight he’s here in Newcastle with a three-piece, and if the focus of the show is slightly different, the quality is the same.
Mike Zito looks for some fresh guitar angles
They hit the ground running with the boogie of ‘One More Train’, and follow that up with JJ Cale’s ‘I’ll Make Love To You’, which he covered on last year’s Resurrection album.  The latter though, has a whole lot more horsepower than Cale would ever give it.  It’s a throbbing, ringing rendition on which Zito proceeds to delve deep into his guitaring box of tricks, while the rhythm section of Doug Byrkit on bass and Matt Johnson on drums manage to both swing and dig in hard at the same time.  By the time they’re done with that, I’m thinking that if this tour had a strapline, it might well be the “Screw Covid Blues-Rock Party” tour.
The set draws in large measure on his just-released live album Blues For The Southside, and on that basis he soon turns to the slow blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Texas Flood’, giving it a big lead guitar intro, and then mid-song making the whole guitar hero malarkey look easy with a solo that never resorts to speed freakery.  A little later there’s an epic quality to their take on Blind Faith’s ‘In The Presence Of The Lord’, with an accelerating mid-section on which Zito puts his wah-wah pedal to work.
Mid-set Will Wilde enters the proceedings as a guest, wearing black leather trousers and a bandolero loaded with harmonicas rather than bullets, and looking disgustingly young and energetic. He takes over on vocals as they rip into some raw, harp-blasting, mic stand-thrusting Chicago-style blues.  Then he sticks around to embark on a guitar-harp duel with Zito on ‘Love Her With A Feeling’, giving it even more of a tough ‘Riot In Cell Block Number 9’ dimension that on its Blues For The Southside outing.
They relax a bit on the stomp of ‘Wasted Time’, with Byrkit and Johnson delivering plenty of
Mike Zito and Wille Wilde give it some welly!
swing, and then cool off even further with Johnny Winters’ reflective slow blues ‘Life Is Hard’.  But then they climb another peak when Zito reaches all the way back to his 2011 album Greyhound for ‘Judgement Day’.  Opening with a moody, Morricone-like guitar intro, it evolves into a dark monster of a tune, with hard riffing passages and then Zito getting into some tuning peg-twiddling axe hero pyrotechnics.  Guitar wrangling ain’t the main reason for my appreciation of Mike Zito, but at times like this I’m inclined to think you could stick him in one of those MMA octagons with Bonamassa, Gales and whoever else, and he could go toe-to-toe with the best of ‘em.  It all turns into something of a guitar extravaganza, which he underlines by flinging in some riffs from ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Kashmir’ for laughs, as a prelude to a howling solo and a tom-tom walloping finale.
After that it’s a pleasure to unwind with the loose and loping ‘Gone To Texas’, into which they turn on a dime to insert a chunk of the Allmans’ ‘Jessica’.  Dunno what that’s got to do with Texas, really, since the Allmans grew up in Florida, but who cares about such details?
Zito teasingly lifts the strap of his beat-up Strat as if to depart, but it’s just a fake walk-off before they burst into a turbo-charged reading of ‘Fortunate Son’ to end the night.  Which is just the kind of sound I really like to hear from Mike Zito, so I’m a happy bunny.
It’s a very long way from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Newcastle, and Zito and co were zig-zagging Britain through some pretty crappy weather over the previous two weeks.  But for all that, this was a gig that showed the rock’n’roll force remains strong in these guys.