Where RUF Records are concerned thirteen is very far from unlucky. With two top acts it was probably the best value for money Blues Caravan ever that rolled into the Bonn Harmonie on Thursday and there’s no doubting that Bernard Allison, Mike Zito and newcomer to the RUF label Vanja Sky make for an unforgettable evening if you love Blues played from the heart and sung from the soul.
Is it a wise move to name your very first release after a track from Rory Gallagher? Croatian Vanya Sky has only been playing the Blues for some five years, and such a move begs comparisons to one of Blues Rocks favorite immortals. On the plus side though it also gets the listener curious, and since the said disc is only being released this very week the only way to hear it from Miss Sky up to today’s show was by buying a Caravan ticket. To answer the question straight away, is her version of ‘Bad Penny’ in the Gallagher class? No it’s not. It has it’s moments though, and as a huge Rory fan herself Sky wisely keeps to the plain riff of the song and doesn’t attempt to out-play the G Man on any long solos.
Vocally Vanya Sky seems a bit uncertain on the CD version of Bad Penny too at times. It’s a good number live, but doesn’t quite seem to fit her vocal range. The new CD was available at Thomas Ruf”s merchandise desk though and having now played it I can say that the best numbers are the less out and out rockers where her raw vocal style, slightly reminiscent of Chrissie Hynde, comes to the fore. Which isn’t to say that the lady can’t play a decent solo on guitar – she knows her way around her instrument (a battered Rory Strat look-alike) very well, and by mid-set has relaxed enough to suggest that by the end of the Blues Caravan tour Vanja Sky will have the experience and confidence to go with the undoubted talent already evident this evening. Raw Blues played with passion is the trademark of Rory Gallagher of course and if you love people with that musical approach keep Vanja Sky firmly on your radar.
Playing the Blues with passion is also a trademark of Texan Mike Zito of course, and rather like Mr Gallagher again, you will need to go a long distance in search of someone with a bad thing to say about the man. The erstwhile guitar ‘Wunderkind’ who went off the rails for a time and looked in danger of squandering his considerable talents as, not just singer, writer and guitar player but producer too. Mike Zito has a karma about him when he walks out on the Harmonie stage that instantly has the audience eating out of the palm of his musical hand.
Indeed, the Zito segment with Allison’s drummer Mario Dawson on drums and the ever popular Roger Innis on bass played my favorite set of this year’s Caravan. Okay, I admit to missing Mike’s mercurial sax man Jimmy Carpenter, but sometimes less really is more and the interplay between Zito and Innis was at times spellbinding, as on one of Mike Zito’s first releases ‘Gone to Texas’. You could see these guys were having a great time, and if the audience had all decided to pack up and leave (which they would not have dreamed of doing!) the band would have continued on for their own pleasure. ‘Make Blues Not War’ and ‘No More Wasted Time’ continued the excellent set. ‘Keep Coming Back’ was delivered with a power that had me wanting to write that very line on a Harmonie Bonn contract out and have Mike Zito sign it.
I saw Bernard Allison a couple of years ago now and was impressed by his undeniable guitar skills but but there was a grit lacking from the show that stopped me from being totally sold. This evening it seemed though that the injection of young talent from Vanja Sky and boundless enthusiasm from Mike Zito made all the difference. He was clearly moved by the reaction to playing his father’s songs, and his own set seemed to have more fire than I remembered previously. Whatever you might make of Bernard Allison’s music, from a technical point of view you could only take a deep breath when the man launched into a pyrotechnic strewn ‘Voodoo Child’.
Label owner Thomas Ruf is always all-smiles at Caravan shows, but this year the smile is maybe just a bit bigger even. Many years ago now his love for the music of Blues great Luther Allison led to the creation of the very record label that is tonight hosting Allison’s son Bernard. Add to that the excellent Mike Zito, also a fan of Allison, and a top rhythm section including one of the industry’s favorite bass men Roger Innis (until recently with Laurence Jones) and a celebration of Luther Allison’s music can’t go wrong. You can’t argue with his son’s logic either: “Without Daddy I wouldn’t be out here playing” smiled Bernard. I feel a palpable change in the tension onstage as Mike Zito kicks off with the opening lines of Allison senior’s classic ‘Bad News is Coming’. Another classic, ‘Serious’, doesn’t seem as gritty as the original, but it does roll smoothly and soulfully along with Bernard’s lilting vocal. A tune demanding a fine touch and the quartet onstage deliver it perfectly.
“We could play all night” smiles Mike Zito to audience cheers “But we’re unfortunately not allowed too!” his smile changing to a sad grimace. With all three entertainers back onstage together for the finale it occurred to me that here were three very different styles of the Blues . Allison’s note perfect soloing, Sky’s stripped back lead phrasing and Zito’s flowing, looping slide runs were like getting offered all the chocolates in a box at once. Now that’s an offer you can’t refuse!