Make Blues Not War

Mike Zito

Ruf Records, 2016

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


One of the things I admire most about Texas hard-bluesman Mike Zito—and there’s plenty about this talented guitarist/vocalist to admire—is that he makes absolutely no bones about what he’s up to musically. He’s such an unabashed Stevie Ray Vaughan fan, filling these tunes with stinging guitar licks, juicy hard boogie rhythms, blistering, sometimes near-psychedelic solos and slightly scruffy blues-shouter vocals, that he doesn’t hesitate one second to go ahead and name-check SRV himself in song. And why not just own it? Hell, the crack band backing him here—Tom Hambridge (drums/production), Tommy McDonald (bass), Rob McNelley (guitar), and Kevin McKendree (keys)—even sounds like Double Trouble half the time.

The thing is, Zito and company understand exactly what makes this style of music tick, and they do more than merely imitate or emulate—they elevate it. They make it their own. Make Blues Not War might not win any awards for originality, but once you leave such considerations behind, it’s another superb Zito album overflowing with meaty, earthy, punchy hard blues.

Early highlights abound. “Highway Mama” revs the engine for half a minute before thundering in astride a menacing, nearly Zeppelinesque riff that drops out for chunky blues rhythms between volleys. “Cool highway mama, I’m about to blow my top,” declares Zito before blowing the roof off with an extended solo. “Wasted Time” literally sounds like a lost SRV track, though the credits claim Zito and Hambridge co-wrote it with Richard Fleming. It has every element down: a playful Texas boogie beat, bold, flashy guitar fills, and Zito’s pleasantly weathered voice declaring “Shame on me for wastin’ time on you.” “Redbird” feels like fairly standard fare until four minutes in, when the band launches into the stratosphere for a psychedelic jam session.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It’d be hard for a guy whose meat and potatoes is Texas blues to write a song called “Crazy Legs” without in some way referencing ZZ Top’s megahit “Legs”—so they don’t even bother, instead aiming to one-up their forefathers with a full-on hard-boogie arrangement whose unleashed rawness gives back everything the slicked-up ’80s took away from ZZ Top. The title track dials back for a tune that’s both understated and a highlight, a slow, smoky blues with a simple, direct  message that’s impossible to argue with. Up next, “On The Road” is exactly what it sounds like and more, a road song with sass: “Got a blue Mercedes with a snakeskin top… Got a built-in bar to keep my cold cuts cold, etc.”

The second half offers more of the same, starting with a tasty cover of Luther Allison’s grinding “Bad News Is Coming,” possibly the most on-the-nose title ever given to a blues song. By contrast, “One More Train” coasts along on light-hearted flair, while “Girl Back Home” offers an affectionate if rather by-the-numbers sketch of the same. “Chip Off The Block” features Zito’s son Zach playing along with Dad and lines about being raised on Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s a roadhouse blues that refers to a roadhouse in the cliché-filled lyric, but it’s so affectionately done it’s hard not to love it anyway.

Zito and company finish up with a pair of sharper numbers. “Road Dog” might have a rather predictable lyric, but Zito gives it a heartfelt, totally committed performance that—there’s that word again—elevates it into something special. And their cover of old-time Texas bluesman Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow’s “Route 90” is terrific fun, a rollicking number that has Zito declaring “Gonna stop in Bowman Texas / And get some barbecue / Come on, let’s get some ribs, boys!” as he kicks off a throaty little solo that’s pure foot-tapping fun.   

Zito for once here feels like more of a player and singer than a writer; after writing much of the two previous albums of his I’m familiar with, this time out he co-writes just five of 12 tracks, collaborating with producer/drummer Hambridge and Richard Fleming, who pen five more here without him, in addition to the two covers. The thing is, it doesn’t seem to matter; every one of these tunes fits comfortably inside the same familiar Texas hard-blues frame that Zito has occupied long enough now that it’s become second nature. Make Blues Not War is some mighty fine Mike Zito, another showcase for the distinctly Texan hard blues he grew up loving, and whose tradition he carries on today.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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