Now, I’m not at all sure why anyone would try and sell new versions of some of the best Rock and Roll songs ever put down on plastic. But if anyone is going to be that crazy, then it might as well be someone that is doing it for the fun rather than the money. In which case, Mr Mike Zito gets away with the ‘blasphemy’ of re-playing already perfect Rock n Roll songs with perfection on his new release A Tribute To Chuck Berry
‘Playing’ really is the right word. Fun is something that leaps out from every one of the twenty tracks on this disc. Each one has a guest musician on guitar, leaving Mike Zito to cover the vocal department. It’s an odd arrangement for someone best known for his fluid Texan guitar licks. An arrangement you would expect more from a celebrated vocalist. But the idea works, and it does so because of Zito’s personality. He never gets in the way. He asks some of the best guitar slingers in the modern business to contribute to a Chuck Berry tribute and they flock to do so.
It also works because Zito is clearly a fan. As he says in the background info for this release:
“This was a very special project for me. I lived in Chuck’s hometown of St. Louis for 32 years, and I worked at a small musical instrument store where his drummer also happened to be employed. Chuck’s son would drop by on occasion as well. He was an icon, and rightfully so. I’ve been playing his songs since I was a kid… he was a tremendous influence on my career”
Berry was a tremendous influence on the careers of all the guitar players on this CD too, and there are some illustrious names who sent in their guitar tracks for this project. It’s hard to pick a winner, but Joe Bonamassa really does raise the bar pretty high with his licks on ‘Wee Wee Hours’. This collection doesn’t sound like a bunch of top guitarists all trying to be better than the rest though. Every track has it’s own magic – and the guitar solos really aren’t that vital an ingredient to that magic. From track one, ‘St Louis Blues’, you pretty much know what you’re getting from the moment it powers in with that classic Chuck Berry guitar intro. Charlie Berry III is the guest guitarist, but actually Lewis Stephens all but steals the show with his stomping honky-tonk piano, and not for the last time here either.
The vocals throughout are attributed on the CD to Mike Zito, but the obvious enthusiasm of the players means that they also chip in, sometimes with shared chorus duties as Joanna Connor on ‘Rock and Roll Music’ or shared verses as Albert Castiglia on ‘Thirty Days’. Sometimes the guitarists bring a particular style to their tracks. Most obviously there is some excellent slide work on ‘Havanna Moon’ from the great Sonny Landreth. For the most part though, they just seem to plug in enthusiastically and play ecstatically.
The guitar parts were, I gather, created externally and ‘sent in’ but the odd thing is that you wouldn’t know it. The disc really sounds as if it was compiled out of Mike Zito asking guest guitarists to get up and “play ‘some rock n roll” at the end of a show. “No pressure, just jam for fun”, and I mean that very much as a compliment. ‘Just for fun’ is the real key to the success of this disc. No stars here, just some way better than average Chuck Berry fans putting out the licks and singing along. Wonderful stuff indeed!
You can’t get more tongue in cheek of course than Berry’s ‘My Ding-a-ling’ and here it sounds a little like no-one is quite sure where to take this most infamous of Berry anthems. Maybe come Christmas time they will take it all the way to number one? Crazier things have happened in late december.
When you’re working around the licks of twenty different guitarists you really need to have a rhythm section as tight as a ducks you know what. Take a bow bassist Terry Dry and Matthew Johnson on drums for a fantastic job. I remember them from Mike Zito’s last show in Bonn where Zito praised them: “These guys have been playing music together now for twenty years. Longer than I’ve been married!”
With twenty top guitarists here (twenty one including Mike Z himself) I’m still surprised – and a little disappointed – by the absence of Samantha Fish. I guess the lady has been rather busy over the last year or so making three discs and an ever-growing reputation though. All in all a fun record and I’m looking forward to seeing Mr Zito take this on the road. Have you got that Duck Walk down yet, Mike?