There’s a tattoo with the Gateway Arch on his arm, but you only need to hear Mike Zito play to know his origins. Jeremiah Johnson is a new name in Bonn, but also a native of St Louis, Missouri.
Not only do the two men have a common home, they also have a common ability to play the Blues from their heart-sleeves. If you missed them on Sunday at the Harmonie, then you really should have the Blues. Here’s why…
If you’re new to Mike Zito please check out my interview from 2014 It’s a little old, but Mike’s priorities haven’t changed in those five years. As he puts it onstage this evening: “Our aim is that you leave here after the show feeling happier than when you came in the door. If we do that, then we’ve done our job”. It fits too the tattoo (one of many) on Mike’s arm quoting Luther Allison: “Leave your ego. Play the music. Love the people”.
Tonight there is a good sized crowd to love, and a punctual start for support act Jeremiah Johnson. It’s almost unfair to call Johnson a support act in fact. Factoring in that he shared a good chunk of Mike Zito’s set as well then they pretty well divided up the evening equally music-wise. There seems to be a deep well of super Texas/southern blues players around these days; Zito, Albert Castiglia, and Samantha Fish have all played here at Bonn Harmonie, all played great sets, and all been polite, down to earth human beings along the way. I’m glad to say that Jeremiah Johnson can be added to the list on all counts.
Johnson’s style is somewhat rougher round the edges than that of Zito. Busier too. Where BB King would have played one note, Zito plays two, and where he plays two, Johnson plays three. Johnson is using Zito’s seasoned rhythm section (more later) and like Mike, doing without a saxophone player (and yes, despite the tight rhythm section, I missed the extra musical textures from Jimmy Carpenter this evening!). Jeremiah Johnson uses his signature Delaney Sonoita and it’s Bigsby tremelo arm to sizzling effect though.
Despite this being his first real tour of European venues, Johnson’s confidence and obvious enthusiasm had the whole crowd on his side immediately. The US flag flapping from his jeans pocket told you where he came from, and the backstage pass swirling around next to it told you he didn’t expect to be known. The confidence with which he performed though told you where he was going – on an upwards trajectory in Europe. Expect to hear a lot, lot more from Jeremiah Johnson. The Blues has a bright future, and he will be a big part of it. Check out the new, Mike Zito produced album ‘Straitjacket’ on RUF Records and spread the word around – lets get Jeremiah Johnson back here with his own band ASAP blues lovers!
Now here’s a curious thing. The backing musicians were the same, the venue and audience were the same, but immediately that Mike Zito started in with ‘Mississippi Nights’ the sound was somehow warmer and smoother. It’s a song that name checks many of the greats who inspired Zito to take up music., a milestone in his life. Second up was also a song to mark one of his musical milestones: ‘First Class Life’ is a testament to Mike Zito’s ‘Awakening’ as he described his new post drink/drugs life in my 2014 interview.
I’ve seen Mike now with a full band of his own, with supergroup Royal Southern Brotherhood, with Big Daddy Wilson and Albert Castiglia and with Samantha Fish. Really that says a lot about the Man. He enjoys making music as a player and a producer and enjoys seeing what others bring to the table when they get up and play with him. Tonight it’s the sparsest backing I’ve encountered. Having said that, you can’t say it was ‘just’ bass and drums. Not when the players are Terry Dry and Matthew R Johnson. “These guys have been playing music together now for twenty years” smiles Zito before introducing the duo who have been his mainstay for the past couple of years. “They’ve been together longer than I’ve been married” he observes, with an even bigger grin.
The two men are a dream duo when you want to travel light but still put out a top quality show. They are also the perfect foils for Zito to explore the sounds of his Stingray Music Master to devastating effect. Great playing, particularly the haunting effects on ‘Old Black Graveyard’, inspired by a graveyard in Beaumont Texas where Blind Willie Johnson is buried,. There is really so much quality new material that it’s difficult to fit in classics from the older Zito back catalogue. ‘Gone to Texas’ still rightfully holds its place though, and you can almost taste the red soil in his voice and guitar playing.
Mike Zito knows how to match his playing style perfectly to the song. Maybe the pure breadth of his playing is the key difference between his and Jeremiah Johnson’s playing at present. From the warmth of ‘Mississippi Nights’ through the funk of ‘Judgement Day’ and the laid back slide control of ‘Old Black Graveyard’. He can jump seamlessly mid-song during ‘Judgement Day’ into Led Zeppelin riffs, and back out again, leaving the listener to wonder how he did it.
After the last of many autographs have been signed at the merchandise table Mike Zito steps back for a moment in our conversation to remember his early days as a music lover in St Louis. Authentic Blues in those days meant the legendary black performers, from Robert Johnson through to Son House, Muddy Waters and BB King. Mike smiles at the fact that, to many fans now, ‘authentic’ actually seems to mean coming from particular parts of the USA. So is Zito now ‘authentic Blues’? One of the contemporary musical brothers from other mothers – of Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan? Shortly before the great man’s death Mike presented Johnny Winter with a guitar as a birthday gift. Perhaps the guitar should have passed in the other direction? Whatever, the musical legacy was passed on, and is being passed on, all the time. The players who will carry it best are those who not only play but feel the music and its history. Count Mike Zito and Jeremiah Johnson amongst them.