Making Blues, Not War with Mike Zito

dsc_1908Best known in Bonn for his stint as guarist alongside Devon Allman with the multi award winning Royal Southern Brotherhood, Mike Zito is a popular man on the American Blues circuit in his own right and his visit to Bonn Harmonie recently was proof of why.

Let me tell you about Mike Zito.  Not about the music, but about the other reasons I have a lot of time for the man and his music.  I’ve had a number of requests to use my pictures or posters etc over the last few years of my concert photography.  Naturally it’s a moment of pride when such a request comes up on my Emails or Facebook messages.  Thing is, most musicians know about the pride and just say “Hey, love your site.  Can you send me a hi res copy of that awesome pic you took of us last night for our website/next poster…?”.  Mike Zito is the only one who ever said “Hey, I love your pictures from our show last night.  Can I BUY one?”  That’s Mike.  If you feel in need of a counterweight to the craziness this world throws at you from day to day then visit Mike’s blog ‘A Bluesman in recovery’.  The best antidote I had on the worrying day Donald Trump became President was Mike putting out an acoustic version of his song ‘Make Blues, Not War’ on Facebook.  It makes for a great T shirt slogan, but also sums up the temperament of the Man and his music perfectly.

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On this particular evening at Bonn Harmonie Mike seems to be feeling the whiplash of too many shows of a similar kind in the Bonn area at once.  There are enough people here to create an atmosphere but not the crowd a man of his musical talents deserves by any means.  He’s paid to bring this fine band over from The United States and the Harmonie isn’t going to cover the seat reservations and make a profit.   If Zito is disappointed about this he typically isn’t showing it.  He strides confidently onstage sporting a huge smile and immediately bends to shake my hand and say “Hi John!”  Mike’s a ‘glass half full’ guy, grateful for those who are here rather than complaining about those who are not.  Anyway, he’s here to play music, and there’s nothing else Mike Zito loves to do more I suspect.

The evening starts, as does the new disc, with Zito going full throttle with the rocker ‘Highway Mama’.  It’s a hard-hitting start but it’s not what Mike Zito does best.  The new album is “Me and my guitar rather than me and The Wheel (Zito’s band)” he tells me later.  Truth to tell I’m glad that this evening he has The Wheel behind him, especially Jimmy Carpenter on sax.  ‘Keep Coming Back’ from the previous CD is next up and to my mind has a lot more of what makes Mike Zito sound like, well, Mike Zito the man from Missouri.

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Keeping it tight on bass – Mr Scot Sutherland

With more than a touch of irony Mike says “You might have heard that we had an election recently…” and refuses to go into any more detail about his opinions on it before delivering a song that puts them all down perfectly ‘Make Blues Not War’ or “sex instead of politics” as he says with that mischievous Zito grin.  I liked it so much I bought the T shirt literally. ‘Wasted Time’ is pure Rhythm and Blues for tired souls and rolls along nicely as does the rest of set one with a spirited ‘Choo Choo Mama’ and a smattering of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ to ensure there will be takers for the CD’s at the merchandise stand at the interval.

Not bad, but a fragmented set to my ears.  Moving around the auditorium didn’t help me find a good place acoustically and I had to accept that Jimmy Carpenters sax wasn’t going to get the space it deserved.  On the other stage side Scot Sutherland’s teeth grinned out from inside his beard in a way that suggested he was happy with the grooves going down and certainly the rhythm section was keeping it nailed down tight enough.

So maybe it was just me, but part two sounded like the band and sound had stepped up a league.  Or just maybe it was because the second set was generally older and more road tested.  ‘Get Busy Living’, ‘Natural Born Lover’, yep, this is where Mike Zito is to be found away from just sounding like a great RnB player.  The distinctly St Louis twang of voice and music.  Even Carpenter’s sax got to hit the front a lot more – the band were in top gear I thought, but…

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One for the camera from Mike Zito

“This is one from the great Luther Allison”, announced Zito.  “I got the bad news this morning…”  Suddenly we went from Top Gear to Cruise control on the Enterprise.  Yes, this is a traditional slow blues that every band with any ability might break out in their set, only they wouldn’t have Mike Zito playing lead.  Probably, no, definitely, the best guitar soloing I have heard this year.  One of those rare few minutes when a guitar is seen to play a man rather than vice-versa.  That moment when music transcends the ability of words to express emotion is a rare one – you wont hear it at every concert you go to, maybe twice a year if you’re lucky.  Notes flow into each other like a conversation with an old friend.  They laugh, they cry, and you wish the conversation would go on forever.   There’s a palpable moment of silence before the applause starts and we are all back on planet Earth, Mr Zito included.

When Mike asks how I am later, I say I wish I could be a musician on the road instead of an accountant in an office all day.  Mike has no sympathy.  “Oh, I’m an accountant, and Tour Manager and a whole lot of other things when I’m on the road” He laughs.  A line from Mike’s blog comes to mind: “I learned from OCD that I have to find a preoccupation for my mind or it will find one for me”.  May music long keep you pre-occupied Mike Zito.

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