Mike Zito Unleashes Ferocious Guitar Attack on Live Set ‘Blues for the Southside’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Mike Zito has recorded his long dreamed of live blues album and as they say in the sports world, he and his band “left it all on the floor.” Zito made a special trip to the neighborhood where he grew up, South St. Louis, for an explosive show at the Old Rock House. Zito, who is a co-owner of Texas-based Gulf Coast Records and often produces for artists on his label and others, produced the album that features his band, and a few select guests. Going full throttle for the whole evening are Matthew Johnson (vocals/drums), Lewis Stephens (piano/organ), and Doug Byrkit (vocals/bass) with label mate and long-time St. Louis compadres, guitarists Tony Campanella and Dave Kalz, along with surprise guest, guitar wizard Eric Gales, who happened to be in town that night.

Zito has earned his reputation as one of the most charismatic performers in blues and is one of its better songwriters. On his studio albums, his guitar playing is great but mostly in service to his songs. Those of us who have seen him perform live are well acquainted with his fiery guitar attack, which is on full display here. Zito, who just turned 51 a week before the show, sings in his husky full-throated voice throughout. These 16 songs are comprised of highlights from his catalog (ten of them., although one was written by Tom Hambridge and Richard Fleming) and well-chosen covers, including songs either written by or associated with Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tampa Red, and Chuck Berry. Listeners will likely gravitate to “Voodoo Chile” which features 12-minutes of pure electric guitar bliss as Zito and Eric Gales duel like it’s their last gig. To Zito’s credit, he never tries to mimic Hendrix’s version and doesn’t mimic Stevie Ray Vaughn in “Texas Flood” either. He puts his own stamp on both songs.  

Zito kicks off the show with the rowdy “Mississippi Nights,” launching into a full-scale workout right away, next injecting some slide guitar into “First Class Life.” The one new song on the album is the instrumental title cut “Blues For The Southside.” Zito plays it tastefully, with chorus and solo like the best of the blues guitarists. He focuses on the tone and feel, saving the showboating for other tunes.  The boisterous “Hell on Me” and “Back Problems” set up “Make Blues Not War,” where he engages the audience in singing its chorus.

Disc 2 begins with a dual guitar workout with an old friend and mentor Tony Campanella on “Highway Mama,” the Hambridge/Richard Fleming tune. Zito accents the salacious in Tampa Red’s “Love Her with a Feeling” and kicks into high gear again on the Hambridge/Fleming/Zito co-write “Wasted Time.” By this point Zito and the band keep charging, likely sapping most of the energy from the crowd before sharing the stage with Eric Gales after which the walls and roof were likely in need of repair.

Although Zito takes a brief breath, he resumes his fiery approach in “Dying Day” before finally going into slow blues mode on “Life Is Hard,” written by Fred James.  Zito’s co-write with former Royal Southern Brotherhood bandmate Devon Allman, “The Road Never Ends,” features guest guitarist Dave Kalz and blistering piano from Lewis Stephens, who also does his best Johnnie Johnson piano on the encore, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” It was a special ‘guitar heaven’ night for those in attendance and will likely stand as a landmark live blues-rock album not only this year but for years to come.

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