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Mike Zito


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It’s back. The debut album that blew up the ’90s blues scene. The songs that announced the touchdown of a major new talent. In modern times, as an established solo star and former member of the globally acclaimed Royal Southern Brotherhood, Mike Zito’s reputation precedes him. But turn back the clocks. Rewind the film reels. Slip through the wormhole to 1998, when a 27-year-old punk kid took his first shot in the studio. “Blue Room,” he reflects, “is the beginning of me becoming an artist.”

By 1998, Zito had been around the block. Raised at the sharp end in St. Louis, Missouri, he’d witnessed the lean years of the ’70s, as his father – a union employee at the local Anheuser-Busch brewery – grafted to support five kids in a cramped apartment. Music was a way out, with Zito learning his craft at a downtown guitar store, then seizing any live work that fell his way. As he told the Blues Mag: “I’ve played with country bands, dance bands, rock bands, alternative bands...”

Blue Room was the moment of clarity, when Zito realised he was burning to be more than a roadhouse-filling covers band. In 1997, he assembled a dedicated lineup and announced his new mission statement: original songs written from the heart. But artistic integrity didn’t come cheap. With just $1000 for studio bills, Zito knew he had one shot. “I have many great memories of the Blue Room sessions,” he says. “It was recorded in the basement of a house outside of St. Louis. We recorded the whole album in one day and all the tracks are live with no overdubs – except the vocals. We had played the night before until 6am at an all-night club in St. Louis and went to the studio at 9am. We brought beer with us and basically did not sleep.”

Play Blue Room today and you can still feel the urgency flood through the speakers. The scratchy funk-blues of Hollywood sets a breakneck pace. Pull The Trigger has an irresistible stop-start lick that underpins Zito’s ragged vocal. It’s All Good pairs a muscular lick with a virtuoso solo. Gravy Jam and Soundcheck are chop-flexing instrumentals, while Lovering is a slow-blues pulsing with potency.

Elsewhere, Shoes Blues is a rampant good-time anthem, offset by Ways About You’s jazzy shuffle and the glassy funk of Lightning Bug. Finally, there’s a wah-soaked cover of Elton John’s Rocket Man, closing a tracklisting that offers a signpost to the artist Zito would become. “The singing is sometimes not quite there,” he considers, “and the guitar playing is so over the top. But it’s full of honesty.”

Likewise, while Zito’s later albums would find him drilling deeper as a lyricist –to examine themes from mortality to sobriety – this opening gambit captures the worldview of a young man enjoying primal pleasures. “The vibe of Blue Room is total bravado,” he reflects. “I was so full of myself back then, and mostly the songs were about partying and sex. I was 27 years old and trying to be a rock star.”

Blue Room changed everything. As the album sold, the songs began to be requested live – displacing the Cream and Hendrix covers – and Zito was heralded as an artist of rare potential. Back then, he didn’t anticipate the bitter-sweet future about to unfold – the lost years of alcoholism in the post-millennium, the salvation offered by his wife, Laura, the plaudits of Royal Southern Brotherhood in 2012 and the rising trajectory of his solo career since he picked it back up with 2015’s Keep Coming Back. But when Zito looks back now at Blue Room, he wouldn’t change a thing: “I find such joy in listening to the young man on this recording. I’m so proud that it’s finally being released by Ruf Records after twenty years...”

Blue Room will be released by Ruf Records November 16, 2018

First Class Life.


There may not be a more honest bluesman than Mike Zito, whose 15th album ‘First Class Life’ comes out May 11 on Ruf Records. The rocking yet poignant title track explores his journey from addiction to sobriety and then musical recognition; he is a two-time 2017 Blues Music Award nominee. “Second chance at a first class life,” he sings, recalling the hard times. The Texas-based musician smiles and continues, “I grew up poor in St. Louis, and now I'm travelling the world to sing my songs.”

 

Zito’s star has been on the rise of late both solo and as a member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood, with bandmates Cyril Neville, Devon Allman, Charlie Wooten and Yonrico Scott.

As is fitting for a man with the word “Blues” tattooed across his picking hand, ‘First Class Life’ focuses squarely on blues with heart and chops to spare, not to mention wit and openness. The punchy “Time For A Change” conjures the tension in the world today while the exquisite Memphis-style song, “The World We Live In,” which recalls BB King in its world-weariness. The electrified blues bounce of “Dying Day” finds Zito swearing lifelong allegiance to his wife. “Old Black Graveyard” sets the scene of a bluesman’s final resting place and its disrepair, along with some possible supernatural influences, with Zito’s masterful slide guitar flourishes driving it home.

Yet the record’s darker moments are offset by cuts like “Mama Don't Like No Wah Wah,” the funky crash-bang-wallop gem written with Ruf labelmate Bernard Allison about the late legend Koko Taylor. “Bernard told me about his first gig as guitarist for Taylor,” laughs Mike. “Koko didn’t like any effects on the guitar, she wanted it to sound natural. When Bernard made an attempt to use an effect on his guitar after playing with her for months, he got caught. ‘Mama don't like no wah wah’ is what he was told. That’s a song to me!” The two guitar slingers trade off, trying to one up each other atop a funky blues groove, including Allison pulling out his forbidden wah wah pedal. The tongue-in-cheek “Back Problems” is a showcase for Zito’s wit as a songwriter.

In addition to the press and Blues Music Award love, Zito has earned from fellow artists. Anders Osborne says, "I love Mike Zito! He's got that rare kinda voice that resonates in your soul. All his hardship, life experiences and kind heart oozes out of every note his sings. His guitar playing dances delicately between a contemporary blues virtuoso and an old fashion soul man. Mike continues to impress me with his straightforward and honest songwriting. His joy and grace shine through every record he makes."