Posted July, 2011
Last summer, my daughter and I had a father/daughter date, going to see one of rock and blues icons from my youth, Johnny Winter. As I wrote in my review of the show (here), the opening act blew my daughter and I away. It was a three piece band that was fronted by its namesake, Mike Zito.
While seeing Johnny Winter perform will go down in my mind as one of the all time personal thrills of mine, I was struck and impressed by the power, presence and performance of Zito. How would one describe it? Hmmm. I think that I would call it a fun, non-conceited swagger that can only come when one has a healthy assessment of their abilities and having a ton of fun demonstrating those abilities to the enjoyment of others.
As my daughter and I left the show, I swung by the product table that displayed Zito’s CD’s and such and picked up a business card shaped magnet that read, “Peace Love Zito” and his website, MikeZito.com.
That magnet lay on my little jewelry and phone collector thingy in my closet for since that time, serving as a reminder that I really must try to score an interview with this remarkable talent. In fact, it did so for dang near a year until this year, as I was studying the line-up of talent that was going to appear the Dallas International Guitar Festival back in April, I saw that blues’ Italian stallion was going to play there.
After the beam of light from Heaven went away and the angels finished singing from on high, signifying that it was time for me to pursue the interview, that’s exactly what I did. The result was a great visit after his performance that included sharing the stage with Ryan McGarvey and Anders Osborne.
I knew that Zito had an album that was lined up to be released so I asked him about it.
“It’s called Greyhound and I recorded it in Lafayette, Louisiana, at Dock Side Studio. Anders Osborne produced it. The guys that played today, Carl DuFrene (bass) and Bernie Blade (drums, and played with Dave Matthews and Friends) are also on it and it comes out on July 19th on Eclecto Groove Records.”
When I asked if the album was along the same vein as his previous CD, Pearl River, his eyes lit up as he excitedly described it to me.
“It’s a little more rock and roll. My first album was more what I like to do. The second album – I like to play blues, too, and it had other songs on it but we did a little more blues. So, I’ve been writing songs. I didn’t want to worry about making it a type of genre. I just wanted to record the songs. So, we did it when we went into the studio. These guys (DuFrene and Blade) never played with me, never rehearsed with me. We just started jamming on something and then we pressed “record”. That’s how we did it – the whole thing in two or three days. It’s got a real good, like, ‘hold on – don’t hold your breath’ feel. It’s got a ‘I hope it all works out’ kind of sound.”
The passion he exhibited about the project welled up even more when I asked if the vibe on the album was similar to the incredible performance that I had just witnessed just a few minutes prior.
“Yeah, the song I did today is called Hello Midnight and it’s on there. It’s definitely a little more rock and roll. It’s guitar, bass and drums – two guitars, bass and drums. It’s definitely bluesy – maybe some elements of Texas country in there with the songs. I like Texas country a lot! So, it’s got a little bit of that in it. And there’s definitely lead guitar and jammin’.”
The Dallas International Guitar Festival is a magnet for musicians of all levels. They come from all over the globe to attend the show, looking for their idea of the Holy Grail of guitars. I asked Mike what his idea of a six stringed Holy Grail was and did he already own it.
“You know, that’s a good question. I don’t have any holy grails at this point. I used to. I used to always have in my mind, ‘Oh! There’s one out there that I gotta have!’ And I guarantee you, there are plenty of guitars here that I gotta have! But at some point you have to learn to be happy with what you’ve got. And I’ve had so many guitars over the years. I’ve just sold them and traded them. I just thought that I had to have this one and had to have that one. And, really, you just need to play and practice a little more, you know? I’ve got, maybe, six or seven electric guitars. I’ve got more than enough. I play the same one all the time.”
As he points to his nearby guitar that he played on stage earlier, he adds, “That one there is made by Delaney Guitars in Atlanta. It’s a handmade one. He (Mike Delaney) custom made it so I could tell him what I specifically wanted rather than getting my Fenders and having to soup them up or whatever. It just feels good. It’s easy. It’s great. I haven’t stopped playing it since I got it. It’s a gorgeous guitar! Every serious guitar player should try a Delaney guitar. If they do, they’ll wind up ordering one, they’re that great.”
As we chatted, we both shared our admiration of Anders Osborne and Ryan McGarvey. I asked Zito how long he knew these incredibly talented musicians.
“Anders I’ve know of and known who he was for long time. I met Anders maybe three or four years ago. We have the same manager. He used to manage them and then they got back together. Anders and I went on an acoustic tour called The Southern Troubadours. That’s when we got to be real close – got to be friends. Then he wrote a song for me that’s on the Pearl River CD called One Step At A Time – we recorded it together. And then we played shows together. He’s really been getting into the electric guitar in the past year or two – really getting into it. So we talked about guitars and amps. I got him with Category Five. Then he produced my new record. It was really fun because he’s really into electric guitars. He’s an amazing guitar player. Always has been. But he’s been focused on other things. Now he’s really enjoying the guitar. So, we recorded this album and, with him there, it has really big guitar sounds.
“Ryan? I met Ryan a couple of years ago at the Mile High Blues Festival. He went out and played and I was really blown away. He’s an amazing guitar player!”
I shared my story with Mike as to how I came to be aware of him and asked him what it was like playing with such a huge blues legend like Johnny Winter.
“He’s one of my all time favorite. Period. We’re with the same agency so we started playing shows, opening for him. That was awesome. But, that night at the Granada was the first time he brought me out and let me play with him. That was a dream come true. Absolutely! The last show we did together in December - astounding! He blew me away! He played stuff that I never heard him play live - since I’ve seen him. He was wailing! He’s doing great! He’s got a new album coming out. The guy from Gov’t. Mule, Warren Haynes, is producing it. It’s going to be a big record.”
I asked who else he has played with that he admires a lot.
“Well, I’ve played with Buddy Guy. I used to play at Buddy Guy’s club. That was really great. I’ve played with Joe Bonamassa. Of course, the guys in my camp, Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne. There’s been quite a few that I’ve been real excited to get to play with.”
And who’s on his “bucket list” to jam with?
“Well, I’d love to play with B.B. King or Eric Clapton. I’d love to play with those guys. Jeff Beck.”
Our conversation made its way around Zito’s near term and long term plans. Again, he speaks with passion and determination.
“I’m really planning on touring to support the album. I’m really trying to cross over. I love the blues. I like to write songs. I really like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty – more American kind of rock and roll. It’s bluesy. I would love to get a song on the radio and go on tour with some of those guys. I love playing guitar. There’s so many guys who play guitar better than me. They’re all fantastic. I just know how to do what I do. But I like to sing and do my songs. I think that’s when I can step up is when I can do my own thing. So, I’m really pushing that. We’re doing all of the blues festivals and all of that. Today was really fun. After a while, I run out of ideas to play on the guitar. I’m better doing my songs. So, I hope that we can cross it over. I’m calling everybody I know to try and get them to help me – get on a tour and open for somebody. That’s what I’m putting all of my energy into because I think that it’s the best record I’ve ever made.”
“The five year plan is to make this record work!” He says with a laugh. “I really want to make it work. I mean, I love the blues world. We’ve been going to Europe and doing all of the blues fests and they love it. I would be more than happy to get to play blues, travel and take care of my family. So, if this album doesn’t quite do what I want it to do, I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing and have fun.”
As has often been the case over the years at the Dallas International Guitar Festival, you will often rub shoulders with artists from all genres. For instance, last year, among the artists that I met wondering the aisles of booths looking at guitar gear were Journey’s Neal Schon and Bruce Kulick (formerly of Kiss).
This year is no exception as the “who’s who” of music wondering the aisles. As Mike and I were talking, he stops immediately and hollers at Greg Martin from the Kentucky Headhunters. He asks me if I can pardon him for a moment and he quickly walks over to Martin. When he gets back returns, Mike said, “That’s Greg Martin from the Kentucky Headhunters!” I’ve found that, in those circles of greatness, egos are left at the door (if they’re even carried around) and an artist’s love of music, their craft and the appreciation of other talent is front and center. Zito’s almost fanlike exuberance when seeing Martin was as real and sincere as any other Headhunter fan.
It is always refreshing to watch as one great talent is humble enough to recognize and honor other great talent and Mike repeatedly demonstrated that to me as we chatted with the encounter with Martin as a prime example. Zito is a class act on many levels.
My pre-interview research on Mike revealed that, as a consequence of a continuous touring schedule that covered the nation, he ultimately found himself tangled in the hopeless web of alcohol and drugs. It took none other than blues great, Walter Trout, having the love and compassion to care enough to have a chat with Zito about where his life was heading. Trout had been down the same road and knew all too well what the outcome would be if Mike did make a change of heart and life. He reminded Zito that, because of the musical gift he had been blessed with, he had a responsibility to perform his music honestly and to demonstrate and perfect his craft.
This loving intervention set Mike on the path of sobriety. He met a lovely woman who became his wife. He credits her love and support in helping turn his life around for over seven years now. I asked Zito about that experience and how it affects him today as far as how he approaches his career.
“You mean recovery wise? Sobriety? Oh, man! I mean, night and day because I don’t even think that I even approached it (the music and his career) before. I just had all of these aspirations or dreams that I thought would just magically appear because I was supposed to be so great – but I’m not! I never tried. I just ran around in circles. And then I thought that I’d never get to play music again. I thought I’d never be able to do it. But, after about a year sober, I started playing again and I started realizing that, if I was in a good frame of mind and spiritually fit, I could do whatever I want!
“And, man! I started thinking, ‘OKAY! I’m going to find a way to make this work!’ because I would play, get paid and bring the money home and I’m like, ‘Hold on. I think that I can do this!’ because I would give all the money away and not pay the band and owe money because of drugs.
“So I started working, playing gigs and making it a business – approaching it like, ‘This could be a business. I can really make this work.’ That’s what’s paid off. I mean, I might have some talent and I might be good at this or that – and I do continually try to get better and there are plenty of people who are just as good or even better. But, I show up on time. I do a good job. I’m nice enough. I do everything I can, you know? Just like I would if I were to work at your Fortune 500 company. I’d start in the mail room. If I was in the right frame of mind and I wanted to do this, I would work my way all the way up! They don’t always take the guy that’s the best. It’s the guy that works hard and does a good job.
“That’s what’s really been working for me. The music we play is not fancy or anything special about it. It’s just honest and straight forward. We work very hard at making sure that it sounds good. I tell you, man, that approach has got me sitting here with you, playing here today. I mean, it made things really move forward quickly.
“I learned that from a guy back home named Scott McGill. He’s a very famous guitar player. He lives in Beaumont and when I met him, I said, ‘Man, I’ve heard that you’re the best guitar player around.’ And he is! ‘He said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I am but I’m the best one that shows up.’ And I was like, ‘Huh? What?’ He said, ‘I’m the best one that shows up. There are better guys but they’re all on drugs but I’m the best one that shows up and does a good job.’ I was like, ‘Yeah! Alright!’ I think that there’s something that can be said about that. That’s why I’m drawn to the same kind of people. I love Bruce Sprinsteen and I love Stevie Ray Vaughn because when he got clean and sober, he really stuck to what he did. This is what I do! I keep doing it and try to get better at it. To me, I think that people can relate to that at whatever they do.’”
“I don’t know why – even if it isn’t your best because maybe you’re tired and didn’t sleep or you don’t feel good – I don’t know why you wouldn’t do the best you can because I think that’s what people see. They see that there may be somebody better but who cares? Better is relevant. I think that’s what moves people because you’ve given them everything you’ve got. I honestly think that people can tell the crap from real and real always wins!”
It’s that realness that Mike talks about that I came away from our interview thinking about. His love of his music and his craft, his wife and kids, and his love for life itself exudes from the very core of his being. He’s obviously a man who knows that he’s been given not only a God-given talent but an incredible second chance to do what he was placed on this earth to do: write and play music.
You can check out more on Mike Zito at www.mikezito.com. There you can sign up for his free e-mail updates, link to his Facebook and Twitter profiles and, most importantly, load up on his incredible body of work – especially his upcoming CD, Greyhound!