October 2011

Mike Zito: ‘Take me to the river, baptize me in love…’

The Mystery Persists

On Greyhound, Mike Zito chronicles a man’s quest for love and stability as he boxes with God

By David McGee

Mike Zito
Eclecto Groove Records

After distinguishing himself this year in producing the Girls With Guitars and Samantha Fish (Runaway) blues albums, Mike Zito has come out from behind the board to write, play and sing on a remarkable blues album of his own, which is produced with Zito-like clarity by Anders Osborne, who also teamed with Zito to co-write an affecting grinder in “Show Me the Way” and pitches in with backup vocals and some guitar of his own. No one steals the show from Zito, however, who is of course a versatile, masterful guitarist but here further enhances the impression he made on two previous solo efforts as a songwriter and singer both. His rough-cut voice doesn’t even come close to being pretty, and its urgent, lived-in quality makes Zito’s tales of restless wandering, in search of love—of the physical and spiritual type alike—and stability of any sort comprise nothing less than a blues epic.

From his Anders Osborne-produced 2009 album, Pearl River, Mike Zito and Osborne performs the Osborne-penned ‘One Step At a Time,’ which explores some of the same themes that animate Zito’s new Greyhound long player.

“There’s something out there/something for me/the kind of love that’ll set me free,” he sings in the sizzling title track with its steely, searing slide guitar propelling the song’s forward thrust as Zito, sounding near his wit’s end (indeed, he laments at one point “I’m runnin’ out of time”), becomes the physical embodiment of the rootless, solitary man forever at large on the land and knowing that what he seeks may always be just out of reach. Singing in a heavier, even more foreboding timbre on “Judgment Day” (a co-write with the estimable Gary Nicholson) Zito employs a Zeppelin-like stomp in declaring the certainty of his fate: “If all my sins are piled up against me/I know I won’t stand a chance/but if I’m gonna walk the streets of hell, baby/I guess I might as well dance…” and then underscores his inner turmoil with a howling, wailing, banshee cry of a guitar solo that sputters and spits merciless reproach. In the brutal stomp and grind of “The Hard Way,” Zito actually engages the Lord in dialogue, trying to convince the Almighty that He should cede some control to the singer himself—suffice it to say, you can tell from the open wound of Zito’s voice there was no bipartisan agreement on this point, as the man upstairs cautions him, “you’re gonna see what I have in mind/and it’s going down just like I say/the more you fight it it’s gonna be the hard way.” Even when the music lightens up and takes on a light, lyrical quality, as in the acoustic-based “Motel Blues,” with its gentle slide swoops and lilting strumming, the world continues to close in on the narrator, now holed up in a motel and unable to escape the cauldron of his existential dilemma: “Same old room, same old town/same old man, long, weary frown/day-old bread, day-old snow/day-old sheets got me feelin’ low.” As the world closes in on him, the poignant, spare arrangement mirrors the singer’s grim prospects. It’s a beautiful song, but sad to and through the bone. In the jittery, slide-enhanced groove of “Stay,” Zito tries to convince a woman friend to consider him a viable alternative to the dolt she’s running from. By this time we are fully aware of his own limited horizons, you might say, so despite the tune’s engaging, even upbeat energy, and the singer’s attempt at a reality check--“it takes time to run away, and sometimes there’s nowhere to go/it takes time to run away, so won’t you stay here with me”—when he adds the philosophical flourish of “life is hard, it’s not all that bad, sometimes you just need a little luck/so won’t you let me be just what you need,” his credibility is strained, to say the least.

Mike Zito, ‘Motel Blues,’ from Greyhound: Even when the music lightens up and takes on a light, lyrical quality, with gentle slide swoops and lilting strumming, the world continues to close in on the narrator…

What he can’t accomplish in “Stay” he does so in grand style in “Until the Day I Die,” a high-steppin’, struttin’ declaration of enduring love that begins “Take me to the river/baptize me in love…you will be my woman and I will be your man/and through thick and thin we will take a stand…” and goes on to an unswerving assertion of the man’s commitment to the cause—staying in character he announces “I’ll make sure I tell more truths than I tell you lies” in what is surely a major concession given the life he’s lived. The band—bassist Carl Dufrene and drummer Brady Blade (formerly with Steve Earle’s Dukes)—gets into a solid, steady groove (they’re great throughout, laying down the solid bottom while Zito embroiders the arrangements with his tasty, multi-textured soloing)—cooks mightily as Zito’s guitar snarls and swirls around his hearty vocal. In “The Southern Side,” the album’s penultimate song, the conflicted wanderer has found repose in the easygoing flow of the southern lifestyle, after journeying coast to coast and far abroad (he mentions Tokyo). A cool ballad steeped in both southern soul and southern rock, “The Southern Side” sets up the album closer, “Please Please Please,” not the James Brown classic but a striking slice of blues balladry in its own right, lowdown and aggrieved, dominated instrumentally by a weeping acoustic guitar shadowing Zito’s mournful vocal, ahead of a ruminative, B.B. King-style electric solo crafted to lay on an extra dollop of sorrow atop the singer’s pleading for a new start with his woman. Zito rises to a falsetto wail and dips into a gritty, low moan, the band trudges along with him like a convict in leg irons and the singer makes a final, desperate appeal to recoup “the kind of love that’ll set me free” that he sang of in “Greyhound,” until all he has left is “I know I done you wrong, baby, and it’s breakin’ my heart so…” That’s all there is. A mystery centered on a man’s quest for love and stability as he boxed with God, Greyhound refuses easy answers and in the end leaves the future, and its protagonist’s fate, as uncertain as it was at the outset of this tale. It has the feel of life about it.

Mike Zito’s Greyhound is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024