“I think the blues is fresher than ever if you consider the blues to be a broad-based American art form,” says Mike Zito, the St. Louis rocker who cofounded Royal Southern Brotherhood. “If you think that it's only blues if it sounds like the 1950s, then you're probably going to be let down. I don't know that staying true to the roots of a genre is very creative, and it's certainly not what the originators did.”
While his allegiance to blues music is beyond reproach — he's earned plenty of nominations and wins from the Blues Music Awards for his contributions to that genre — Zito has made it clear he's not content following any single trajectory.
Indeed, Zito has proved that the blues still has plenty of room to grow and expand, critics and purists be damned. “Muddy Waters was mocked for bastardizing the blues by using electric instruments,” he offers. “I guess it's all in what you consider the root of the blues, and I do not consider the roots to be a particular guitar sound, harmonica playing, or the clothes that you wear. The root of the blues to me is emotion. By that definition, I believe that we are in the middle of a wonderful American resurgence of emotional music. It just takes a little time to find it."
Zito could be justified for playing it either way; his struggles with addiction and homelessness would certainly give cause to sing the blues, and to do so from a very real and personal place. Yet, on his brilliant new album, the aptly titled Keep Coming Back, Zito stakes a claim to being not only an expressive purveyor of genuine R&B but also an accomplished rocker and balladeer. He sings from the gut as well as true-life experience. Songs such as “Keep Coming Back,” “Chin Up,” “Get Busy Living” and, in particular, the autobiographical ballad “I Was Drunk” (cowritten with Anders Osborne), Zito details his past struggles with an honesty and conviction that mutes any hint of affectation.
While he claims, “I don't know if they are very autobiographical for me," Zito admits, "This album is probably the least like that, in my opinion. These are really just the best songs I had written of about 30 or so over the past two years. I do write from a personal place — that's just my style — so I guess most of my material is personal.”
Ultimately, then, Keep Coming Back is every bit the testament to tenacity and resilience that its title implies. "[Earlier albums] Greyhound and Gone to Texas are essentially themed albums with a central idea in mind,” Zito says in speaking of his past efforts. "This album was really loose and more about the songs and let's see what happens. I did not have a big story to tell here but a good handful of stories and a band that rocks.”
For Zito, the blues may not ever be "mainstream or popular again, but maybe some form of it will." He cites Tedeschi Trucks Band, Warren Haynes, Anders Osborne, Jeffrey Foucault, and "many others" as artists who are "pushing the limits of blues-based Americana music. There are times to say ‘OK, let's play some blues’ and then do your best at re-creating the original sounds and feel. And then there are times to step forward on your own and make your own music.”
Mike Zito and the Wheel
10 p.m. Friday, December 4, at the Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton. Tickets cost $12 and $15. Call 561-395-2929.
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