Pearl River

Mike Zito

Eclecto Groove, 2009

http://www.mikezito.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/30/2009

Let’s just get this out of the way up front, shall we?  It simply isn’t possible to write a review of Mike Zito -- a stupendous singer-songwriter-guitarist in his own right -- without mentioning Stevie Ray Vaughan.  It’s no insult to either man; Vaughan’s style was that distinctive and fully realized, and Zito’s gifts in carrying that hard blues musical tradition forward are that abundant.  Vaughan was a world-class talent, and Zito is the most worthy heir to his throne I have ever heard.

There.  Now for the review.

Pearl River, the successor to last year’s knockout Today finds Zito backed by an all-star lineup of supporting players.  Far from resisting the inevitable SRV comparisons, Zito went and enlisted Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans, who delivers typically inspired work on Hammond and piano.  The great Cyril Neville trades lead vocals with Zito on the title track, a slow, swampy blues that he co-composed with Zito.  Z joins forces with New Orleans singer-songwriter Anders Osborne on the latter’s sweet, rather gospel-folky “One Step At A Time,” and Susan Cowsill stops in for an inspired duet on the lilting “Shoes Blues.”

Still, on this star-studded album of five covers and eight originals, it’s Zito’s own solo compositions -- “Shoes Blues” included -- that consistently make the biggest impression, from strutting opener “Dirty Blonde” to the sassy, finger-snapping “Big Mouth” and “Natural Born Lover,” to the gripping, slow-burning “Change My Ways” (complete with blistering total-emotional-release closing solo).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

What’s wonderful about Zito -- besides the genuineness and flair he puts into every phrase that leaps from his mouth and fretboard, is the deep respect and affection he evidences for the genre he works within.  Take “39 Days,” which opens with a grinding, slightly menacing funk riff that settles back into a deep groove as Zito declares -- in an opening line that arguably encapsulates the entire blues genre in a single phrase -- “It’s been 39 days / Since you walked out on me.” 

As with many classic blues songs, once you’ve heard that line you can pretty much guess the rest of the song; at that point it becomes all about the execution.  And that’s where Zito really shines, because his execution is not just flawless, it’s exceptional.  As Wynans’ organ looms and flares underneath, Zito strums and riffs with exquisite precision while singing like a man possessed.  (To his credit, Zito does throw in a curveball or two as well, making it clear in “39 Days” that the relationship he’s lamenting the end of was not all wine and roses – more like a pitched battle, and yet he’s still heartbroken when she leaves.)

Zito’s sound can turn gritty in places, but that grit is balanced by consistently superb musical decision-making.  For example, the otherwise rather standard bar-blues ghost story “In The Dead Of Night” features a guitar solo so powerful and precise and tasteful, you’d be hard-pressed to identify a wasted note.  When he finally bends one near the end, it’s like the perfect flourish on a piece of fine calligraphy, that little something extra that elevates it from fine craftsmanship into the realm of art. 

Having complimented Zito’s homegrown songs, it’s only right to give a nod to the best of the covers found here.  Mel London’s “Sugar Never Was So Sweet” -- a hit for Muddy Waters back in 1955 -- has one of those classic blues double entendre choruses that Zito complements beautifully with the smoky sweetness of his playing, and his romping, giddy cover of the Sonny Boy Williamson classic “Eyesight To The Blind” is pure musical joy to behold.

Historical footnotes and facile comparisons aside, the simple fact remains -- Pearl River isn’t just a terrific modern blues album, it’s one of the best independent releases of the year.  Don’t miss it.

Rating: A

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© 2009 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Eclecto Groove, and is used for informational purposes only.