Mike Zito Brings Hallowed Blues to The Iridium, New York

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Mike Zito has some fun on the guitar during Royal Southern Brotherhood's set at Saint Louis Bluesweek 2014
Mike Zito has some fun on the guitar during Royal Southern Brotherhood’s set at Saint Louis Bluesweek 2014

They say you have to live the blues to sing the blues. Unfortunately, not everyone survives that ride. But those who do return with gold. “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain,” wrote Lebanese mystic poet Kahil Gibran in The Prophet, “and is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”

At The Iridium in New York City on May 15, Mike Zito opened his 10 PM set slinging a special piece of hallowed wood—Luther Allison’s burnished-gold Gibson Flying V. Zito ripped into the haunting minor-blues boogie “Hell On Me” from Gone to Texas, singing in his warm, rough-hewn voice of being “up for three days/cold sweat on my face/hiding from the sun/deep in outer space.” He was backed perfectly by The Wheel, featuring Rob Lee’s deep-grooving, tom-heavy drumming; Scot Sutherland’s rumbling force-of-nature bass and Jimmy Carpenter’s call-and-response sax. This is modern blues at its finest—seasoned and real—and Zito wrapped it with a fierce, muscular solo replete with the kind of soaring bends and powerful vibrato many guitarists fake but few truly master.

As the lyrics hint, when he was a wild young guy, Zito got on the wrong train, and rode it into a dead-end tunnel of homelessness and hell. We all need roots; without them we’re lost and vulnerable to cheap fixes. Raised in St. Louis, Zito went searching for meaning in his hometown’s musical past. The historic blues artists he discovered inspired him to leave the darkness. So did friends in recovery like Walter Trout, and the love of a sweet Texas girl who became Zito’s wife. He crawled out sober and strong enough to become a family man, fulfill his own destiny as a bluesman, and help others into the light.

At first glance, it could be tempting to think this tall drink of water with the easy grin might be a blues featherweight, but as soon as you hear him dig in with Mike Zito & The Wheel, or trade licks with Devon Allman and Cyril Neville in Royal Southern Brotherhood, it’s clear you’re in the presence of a commanding, blues-forged soul. That ease has been hard won, as you’ll discover on his blog, Mike Zito, A Bluesman In Recovery

Zito gets that playing the blues is not a joke, although plenty of jokes play “the blues.” It’s a spiritual undertaking; a long, sweaty, potentially purifying walk toward enlightenment. You see that light in B.B. King’s beatific face, in Buddy Guy’s clear-eyed joy and the sweetness of elder bluesmen like Hubert Sumlin. How great to watch this new-generation blues leader emerge playing with two killer bands, producing other fine artists, and breaking new blues ground by giving a much-needed helping hand to female guitarists–as Zito has done by producing Girls With Guitars featuring Dani Wild, Cassie Taylor and Samantha Fish; and Fish’s Blues Music Award winnerRunaway.

For their second tune at The Iridium, Zito & The Wheel charged into a tribute to “South Texas Blues” and a woman with “a number way over my head.” Next, Zito called up New York City’s blues ambassador Poppa Chubby and singer Sari Schorr. Shore contributed husky come-hither vocals to a rollicking “Sugar Coated Love,” while Zito and Chubby traded solos to the crowd’s obvious delight.

Poppa Chubby stayed onstage for “Sugar Sweet” off Zito’s gritty 2009 Pearl River album, while Jimmy Carpenter took a blistering sax solo that recalled the sock hop days of rock and roll. The song closed with a full-out jam between Carpenter, Chubby and Zito that raised the roof.

As Chubby left the stage, Mike Zito & The Wheel segued into Luther Allison’s slow blues “Bad News Is Coming,” which gave Zito a chance to prove what a soulful singer he really is, supported by Sutherland’s sensitive touch on the bass. Fittingly for a gig at the club Les Paul played every Monday night from 1996-2009, Zito brought a touch of jazz to his expressive guitar solo, palming the pick and using his fingers to smoothly outline the changes with octaves and arpeggios. Props to The Iridium, by the way, for hosting some spectacular blues shows lately—including Ana Popovic and Eden Brent.

Next, Zito declared he was putting “the bass king on the spot” for “one of the first songs I ever wrote,” which turned out to be funky “Hollywood” from 2008’s Today album. Live, “Hollywood” was a great foil for a searing, high-speed-chase guitar solo from Zito, and a popping and grooving bass turn by Sutherland. Zito followed up with plenty of swagger and slinky slide on “Natural Born Lover” from Pearl River.

To close the show Zito asked, “How ’bout a little rock and roll? Is that cool?” For a nice surprise, he led The Wheel into a massively rocking, utterly satisfying swamp-romp through CCR’s “Bootleg.”

After the set, fans and NYC luminaries like record producer Bob Held (Joe Bonamassa, Jon Paris) hung out and chatted. Once the last autograph had been signed and the club had finally emptied out onto New York’s ever-bright Broadway, Zito and I sat down for a chat.

American Blues Scene: Is this your first time at The Iridium? It’s kind of a legendary place!

Mike Zito: Yes, this is the first time I’ve played here with my band. We had a great time! I’ve actually been touring with my own band for around fifteen years, but lately the Royal Southern Brotherhood has taken precedence. It has really taken off and that in turn has enabled each of us [Mike, Devon Allman, Cyril Neville] to bring more attention to our solo work, too.

The original intention with the Royal Southern Brotherhood was that we would do that and also maintain our own bands. It’s been a juggling act, but we’re making it work.

Any new recordings to tell us about?

Yes! I’m going to start working on the new Girls With Guitars II record for Ruf Records in August, so I’m excited about that. I also just produced an album on Ruf for a young man from England—this really good guitar player named Laurence Jones. And the Brotherhood has a new record coming out June 10 called Heartsoulblood.

The Wheel has a Songs from the Road live DVD and CD coming out that was recorded live in Texas. I’ve also got a new instructional DVD being released by TrueFire this summer called Blues Americana. I’m gonna watch it so I can learn to stay in tune!

You seemed to be handling that alright during the show!

The V was staying in tune fine, but my Tele was giving me some trouble.

C’mon Mike, you know Teles don’t stay in tune!

Ha! That one usually does—I don’t know what was happening with it.

There seems to be a real resurgence happening for the blues. Do you sense that?

I do. I feel it’s coming around. I remember getting turned on in the ’80s with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter—the rock part of blues. And of course once it turned me on, I became curious and learned more about older blues.

But even in the early ’90s, after Stevie passed away, there was this cool blues scene going on in St. Louis. Artists like Poppa Chubby and Walter Trout, Jimmy Thackery and Tab Benoit, Debbie Davies and Joanna Connor were coming through a lot. I was 21 and hitting the clubs so I was really excited about all of them.

Then in the late ’90s it seemed to fade some. The artists were still there, but for some reason the scene or the market seemed to dwindle. Now I definitely sense a new energy and excitement about the blues.

There seems to be a trend even in the mainstream toward real music lately, what with Gary Clark Jr. getting a Grammy this year, and singers like Adele and Bruno Mars sneaking some classic soul sounds onto the radio.

The blues has always had a hard time breaking through into the mainstream but ever so often when they run out of enough crap, people return to real music. They want to hear the blues again. Like on the most recent Justin Timberlake record, he has this great band with guitars and horns, and he’s such a great singer. It reminded me of Motown and made me feel more hopeful. When I see that I get excited that perhaps even people who are mostly tuned into the mainstream want to hear real instruments and real singing. It’s coming back around.

And as silly as American Idol and all that seems—it’s still an indication that people want to hear other people who can really sing. People are getting into talent, and when you get to the roots of music, that’s where you find real talent.

Meanwhile, Europeans seem to appreciate the blues a great deal. There was a forklift operator from Yorkshire at my table here tonight who had flown in specifically to see Eden Brent a couple nights ago and you this evening. He was so thrilled!

Yeah, there was a couple here from France, some ladies from Switzerland. They were all loving it, and they weren’t thinking this is “old people’s music” or something. I think there is a surge of interest in the blues and I hope it’s true.

You know, in the ’60s I’m sure the folks involved in Woodstock, for example, had no idea how legendary it was going to be. You can’t tell when you’re in a scene if it will have that kind of impact, but I’d love to see the blues get its due with a new generation.

Tonight we had Poppy Chubby here, who travels all over the world, and Sarah Shore, who has sung with Joe Louis Walker. I think it’s amazing that all these artists who have been touring and recording for twenty-plus years are still keeping it going. Blues people should earn respect for that kind of longevity. B.B. King should be on the radio! Why isn’t he? He’s certainly been doing it long enough.

What has inspired you to stick with the blues?

Even though I like different types of American music, I just love the blues the most. My parents were older and they listened to big band music alot – my dad was born in the ’20s, so he was, like, fifty years older than me! So when I was a little kid in the ’70s, I was hearing Sinatra and big band music in the house. When I first heard B.B. King I thought, “Wow, that’s got guitar and it sounds like my Dad’s big band music.”

But I also like country and Americana and good singer/songwriting stuff. I think it all goes hand in hand.

It’s also exciting to see female guitarists like Ana Popovic and Samantha Fish coming to the fore of the blues scene.

It’s awesome. They are playing very well and they are playing real blues. I know some people glance at them and say “Oh really, is this what the blues is coming to, young girls playing the blues?” But in reality, why not? Because these artists are really good, they have a genuine feeling for it—give them a chance.

If someone seems unorthodox to you at first, but has a genuine passion for the blues and sticks with it, give him or a chance. You just might be pleasantly surprised. Anybody who is taking the American art form of the blues and is trying to continue it and has respect for it, I don’t care who they are—black, white, male, female, whatever!

Let’s close on that great point. Thank you, Mike!