Mike Zito – First Class Life
Ruf Records – 2018
11 tracks; 45 minutes
2016’s album Make Blues Not War was an album that took Mike’s music clearly into blues-rock territory but here he returns to a far more blues-based album of nine originals and two covers. From the opening bars of “Mississippi Nights” it is clear that slide is a key element on this album as drummer Matthew Johnson and bassist Terry Dry set the pace, Lewis Stephens pounding the piano and Mike conjuring up familiar images of the Delta where “the Devil’s at the crossroads, you can sell your soul for the blues”. The title track is classic Zito, a catchy tune with Mike’s sinuous slide and very personal lyrics celebrating how he pulled back from addiction and excess to appreciate a second chance with his family – an outstanding track that replays in your head for days afterwards. Bobby Bland’s “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog” has been covered many times but rarely better than in this version with Mike’s subtle guitar and Lewis’ warm keyboard work the perfect foil for Mike’s excellent vocals. “The World We Live In” is a slow blues with some fine BB King style guitar which bemoans the stark differences between the top and bottom of our society and “Mama Don’t Like No Wah Wah” amusingly recounts guest Bernard Allison’s experience of playing with Koko Taylor who definitely did not want her guitarist to use any effects, all of which she referred to as ‘wah-wah’!
Mike double tracks moody guitar and slide on “Old Black Graveyard” which graphically describes one of those broken-down old cemeteries you find in the Delta (often while searching for the graves of old bluesmen!), apparently inspired by a forgotten and untended graveyard near his home in Beaumont, Texas. The swinging shuffle “Dying Day” pays tribute to Mike’s wife who “will be mine until my dying day” and “Back Problems” references Albert Collins’s funky blues as Mike sings tongue-in-cheek of how much he has bearing down on him. “Time For A Change”, however, is a more serious song with lyrics that bemoan how we have lost our way, set over another very attractive tune with Lewis’ piano to the fore, Mike delivering some ringing guitar lines. “Damn Shame” provides a second slow blues along the classic theme of ‘my woman done left me’ with some nice guitar work from Mike, again double-tracked, over warm organ washes. Mike reprises an obscure Earl Hooker fast-paced rocker “Trying To Make A Living” to close a fine album with pounding piano and rock and roll guitar.
Make Blues Not War did well for Mike and received nominations for several awards but, in this reviewer’s opinion, First Class Life takes things to another level. Do not miss this terrific album which comes highly recommended!