Ruf Records [Release date 01.11.19]
‘Mike Zito And Friends – Rock ‘N’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry’ is a pit stop, or a pause for breathe in a career that has brought him critical acclaim as both a musician and producer.
This album represents Zito’s return to the same musical and geographic roots as St. Louis’s famous son Chuck Berry.
Zito brings together some 21 guest guitarists who bring their own style to bear on 20 well balanced songs that coherently showcase Berry’s songcraft.
That said, this is meant to be a rock & roll album, and big hitters and star turns here are counter-weighted by some notable omissions.
Perhaps Mike’s choice of songs mirrors his St. Louis memories, but surely there surely must have been some discussion given to the likes of ’Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘Nadine’ , ‘Little Queenie’, ‘Sweet Little Rock & Roller’ and Tulane? Then again, there’s always the question of sequencing and overall flow and the possibility of having an album top heavy with too many similar songs.
Either way, there’s an argument to be made for losing ‘I Want To Be Your Driver’ and ‘School Days’, albeit it does provide a welcome showcase for another female artist Ally Venable.
Then there’s also the throwaway ‘My Ding A Ling’ which is a song hardly worthy of Zito or Kid Anderson’s talent.
As it is, the album opens with a trademark Berry riff, as Zito attacks ‘St. Louis Blues’ with vigour and real passion alongside Chuck’s grandson Charlie Berry 111.
Joanna Connor also provides an early highlight, colouring ‘Rock And Roll Music’ with a warm timbre, while the hard riffing Walter Trout revels with Zito on a celebratory Johnny B. Goode’.
Zito then digs deep for a yearning vocal in the cry for companionship that is ‘Wee Wee Hours’. Special guest guitarist Joe Bonamassa pushes the song into a guitar-led call and response section, before building a huge solo from the ground up. There an awkward production moment when Zito manfully battles to sing the ballad over a full blown solo that dominates the track.
Anders Osborne provides another notable highlight on the brush stroked ‘Memphis’, and there’s real frisson between Zito’s and Robben Ford on an inspired ‘You Never Can Tell’, which benefits from a relaxed arrangement.
Zito then swamps ‘Back In The USA’ with horns to the point that its hard to distinguish Eric Gales’s tone. No matter, the track infuses the album with plenty of energy, as Mike works hard to inject the kind of organic feel that made Berry’s original records so good.
‘Havana Moon’ somehow misses out on the sultry Cuban meets Nat King Cole feel, while ‘Downbound Train’ trades the original portentous atmospheric percussion for a lightness of touch that doesn’t quite evoke the locomotive train rhythm, though Alex Skolnick’s startling guitar squalls and Zito’s belated rap suggests they are trying to be innovative.
Tinsley Ellis’s gnarled reading of ‘Promised Land’ is neatly sandwiched in between the above two tracks and benefits from kick ass horns.
There’s also some neat picking and sparring between Kirk Fletcher and Josh Smith on the jaunty ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, a song well suited to Zito’s tenor.
Tommy Castro perfectly mirrors the uplifting feel of ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’, while Zito’s old sparring partner Albert Castiglia brings a gritty performance to the jumping ‘Thirty Days’.
All in all Mike Zito works hard to strike a balance between gravitas and fun on an ambitious project. He has to overcome the handicap of drop-ins rather than face to face recordings with his guests. This means he treads a thin line between searching for spark and accommodating the 21 guitarists while contemporizing Berry’s songs.
The fact that he succeeds 70% of the time is reason enough to purchase this album. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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