Thursday, July 4, 2024

Ten Top Tracks from . . . Mike Zito

C’mon everybody take a trip with me, down the Mississippi from St Louis – a clunky rhyme that doesn’t even work if you’re an American, I must admit.  Whatever, we’re going on the latest Ten Top Tracks journey, to celebrate the work of St Louis-born bluesman Mike Zito.  As ever, this isn’t an attempt at some definitive ranking of Zito’s best songs, but a personal guide that could take in a whole different batch of material if I compiled it tomorrow.  As ever, look out for the links to the ten selected tracks on YouTube - and there are links to reviews of some of the albums too.
Mike Zito - a blues artist and more
Now, I described Mike Zito as a bluesman in that opening paragraph, and the guy sure can play the blues.  But the thing with Zito is that he’s not purely a blues guy, as he observed to the website Rock & Blues Muse earlier this year:  “I don’t really think I’m completely a blues artist.  I mean, I’m a white guy from South St Louis who listened to rock’n’roll who just loves blues.”  As a listener who appreciates Zito’s ability to not just play the blues, but to journey down other rock’n’roll roads to great effect, I reckon it's a perceptive comment.
Zito’s recording career already went back 15 years when I first came across him with his 2013 album Gone To Texas, recorded with his then band The Wheel.  So yeah, I was pretty late to the party really.  But as belated introductions go, it was good enough to be the start of a lasting relationship, so to speak.  I’m spoilt for choice with tracks to illustrate the quality of Gone To Texas, such as the title track (reflecting positively on the move to Texas that had given him a fresh start in life some years previously), the upbeat ‘Rainbow Bridge’ with its clever everyday imagery, the touring musician’s lament/celebration ‘The Road Never Ends’, or the witty ‘Subtraction Blues’ – and so on and so on.  But I’m going to go with the mellow ‘I Never Knew A Hurricane’, which sports some wonderful, sensitive lyrics, and on which Susan Cowsill is an outstanding vocal foil.
The impact of Gone To Texas was enough to make me explore two of Zito’s earlier albums, 2009’s Pearl River, and 2011’s Greyhound.  The former grabbed me more, with the likes of the fun opener ‘Dirty Blonde’ and the funny, funky ‘Big Mouth’.  But the standout was ‘Pearl River’ itself, a sombre track looking into the dark past of the South that gives a clear nod to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ – and a worthy winner of the Song Of The Year award at the 2010 Blues Music Awards.
Ready to rip it up
Zito’s next (and last) album with the Wheel was the 2015 release Keep Coming Back – my favourite album of that year, and probably still my favourite Zito record.  Again, there are plenty of candidates for inclusion here, starting with the terrific quintet of songs about addiction and sobriety that open the album – Zito having been a mess of booze and drugs around the millennium until he finally got sober in 2003 with the help of his wife Laura.  But my first pick from the album is ‘Girl From Liberty’, a classic example of Zito spreading his wings to produce an invigorating slice of storytelling rock’n’roll.  You could liken it to early Tom Petty, maybe, but really it’s pure Zito.
I appreciate Keep Coming Back so much though, that I have to share another song, and it’s ‘I Was Drunk’.  Recorded with Anders Osborne, it’s the last of the aforementioned quintet, and a devastating Americana slow burn of self-disgust and regret at the impact of drink and drugs.  I dare say there are other songwriters who could explore the theme with similar results, but by god Zito punches you in the gut with this.
Skipping forward to 2018's First Class Life, Zito’s provides a lighter note on 'Back Problems', a chunk of drawling funky blues, with a wearily witty lyric about being weighed down with trials and tribulations – a style for which he’d often shown a facility before, not least with ‘Don’t Break A Leg’ on Gone To Texas, and on some of his work with the Royal Southern Brotherhood “supergroup”, such as ‘Sweet Jelly Donut’.  The funkiness is easy and slinky, and our Mike’s way with this kind of tongue-in-cheek lyric is part of his ongoing charm.
The Covid pandemic presented musicians with a host of challenges – in Zito’s case including thesudden abandonment of a European tour.  But you have to admire his response to adversity by putting together an album with his bandmates in a matter of weeks to plug the gap.  But it’s not just the fact they did it that’s impressive – Quarantine Blues is a corker of an album, bristling with spontaneous energy.  Several tracks could illustrate what I'm talking about, but let’s go with ‘Quarantine Blues’ itself – well he is still a guy who loves the blues after all, and this is a grinding, stomping demonstration of his credentials.
Resurrection, perhaps titled to celebrate the emergence from lockdown, showed off more of his range, especially in creating a sense of drama.  ‘When It Rains’ is a classic example, sharing a stomping kick drum with ‘Quarantine Blues’, but going off in an entirely different, subtler and
Here's looking at you, Mike!
more suspenseful direction, featuring smouldering sax from Eric Demmer.
Notwithstanding his songwriting range, the blues remain a cornerstone of Zito’s repertoire, and it’s also worth emphasising that he’s (a) a blisteringly good live performer; and (b) a helluva guitarist.  These three elements come together on his live album Blues For The Southside, recorded in his home town of St Louis.  Here Zito gets down to some serious axe wrangling, such as when he goes toe to toe with Eric Gales on ‘Voodoo Chile’ (not the Slight Return version).  But I can’t resist picking the live version here of a favourite from Gone To Texas, the bright and bopping ‘The Road Never Ends’, which is pepped up by some guitar duelling with Dave Katz.
Zito is rarely far away from a collaboration with someone, and in recent years one of his most significant sparring partners has been Albert Castiglia, another guy capable of both guitar fireworks and songwriting quality.  The pair delivered Castiglia’s album Masterpiece without any help from other musos, and did it so well that for me it was the best album of 2019. Then they got together again for their 2023 Blood Brothers project which, while pretty good, wasn't as explosive as I was expecting.  But damn did they put that right with the dynamite Blood Brothers: Live In Canada outing.  So let’s hear ‘em boogieing hard on ‘My Business’ for starters.  And while you really should hear them getting stuck into ‘Rocking In The Free World’ – a great choice of cover – my other selection is the dramatic ‘In My Soul’, which starts out aching and works itself up into a real lather.* 
And so, to bring us up to date, there’s just Mike Zito’s latest album Life Is Hard, released in February this year.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s essentially a memorial to Zito’s wife Laura, who died of cancer in 2023.  It’s as dark as you would expect in places, though Zito also tries to find relief through some more upbeat songs.  But really, there’s only one track I can pick to signify what the album is all about, and that’s the gut-wrenchingly emotional ‘Forever My Love’.  I’m not going to labour over describing it – just go listen to it to get the drift.
Mike Zito is a down to earth artist who doesn’t give himself any airs and graces, and that’s part of his appeal to me.  But that doesn’t mean he’s just some common or garden musician.  No, Mike Zito is a fine songwriter, a great guitarist, and a characterful singer, and if you’re not familiar with his work you need to put that right.  Soon.

* The links here are to a show in Illinois, rather than from the album itself.