Mike Zito: Blues for the Southside Review

When you hear about a Mike Zito live album, it’s a given there’s going to be great guitar work. And he delivers on that. But the fun twists of Blues for the Southside are Zito’s voice and his interplay with keyboardist Lewis Stephens.

While Zito is Texas-based, he’s from South St. Louis. With the album recorded November 26, 2021 at St. Louis’ Old Rock House, the show represents a homecoming, reflected in his use of guests Tony Campanella and Dave Kalz, both local heroes from the St. Louis scene.

Over the years, live recordings have gotten more pristine, making the listener feel like they’re there at the show. Of course, most live shows don’t have great sound, so the idea that a clear recording with immaculate separation between the instruments represents the actual show, is a bit of magical thinking. I often suspect the home listener is getting better sound than the people who bought the tickets.

Zito’s recording is delightfully throwback in that it has a bit of sludge. His guitar and voice are front and center and his tone is mud, in a good way. There’s not a lot of nuance, although of course his solos sting as always. But listening you feel like his guitar is everywhere and there’s no escape. Which is what you want from a live show. Zito is pure energy.

His voice is also in incredible form, sounding worn and bluesy, but also strong, and capable of projecting over the wild music supporting him. In fact, hearing him sing songs like “Texas Flood” and “Voodoo Chile,” I began to notice he sounds more and more like Stevie Ray Vaughan. People don’t necessarily think of Zito as a singer, but more as a guitarist who sings. Blues for the Southside establishes his vocal credentials.

Zito’s interplay with Stephens is also special. Stephens gets a nice shout-out from Zito during the show, Zito proudly telling the audience how Stephens played with Freddie King. His organ propels songs like “First Class Life,” freeing up Zito from having to maintain the rhythm. And on “Life is Hard,” Stephens’ piano gives the tune an elegance. He doesn’t steal the spotlight, but he’s right there on almost every song, pushing Zito and providing something to make the performance special.

Coming in at 15 songs, Zito gives listeners a lot of bang for their buck. It also results in a few tracks that meander. For instance, “Voodoo Chile,” which also features guitarist Eric Gales, clocks in at over 12 minutes, and while there’s some incredible guitar interplay on it, it might not be the kind of track you turn to regularly. But the fun of an album like this, rather than the live show, is that you get to pick the moments you want to hear and re-spin, but can skip the songs that don’t resonate. But for most blues rock fans, and of course, Zito aficionados, Blues for the Southside is mostly moments you’re going to want to revisit.

The Review: 9/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Voodoo Chile
– Texas Flood
– Life is Hard
– First Class Life

The Big Hit

– First Class Life

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK

Steven Ovadia

Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.

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