This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 27, 2008 - When blues-rock guitarist and bandleader Mike Zito lived in St. Louis, he could be found playing all over town just about every night of the week.
"We played everywhere," says Zito, who in recent years has relocated to Southeast Texas. "Boomers, Pop's, the 1860, both Train Wrecks, on the landing and in Westport. More than anything, I just wanted to play guitar as much as possible. Luckily, St. Louis is one of those places where you can play music and make a living. You can't do that everywhere."
Zito is still plying his trade, but on a bigger scale these days, touring nationally behind the release of his new CD, "Today." It's his fifth release, but in some ways he regards it as his "real" debut. His earlier efforts were self-released affairs, sometimes recorded under less than ideal conditions.
"They're real records, those old ones, but one of them I recorded in my living room," Zito says. "One I recorded in the back of a guy's house; one in a guy's basement. Not that that makes any difference. They captured the music, and I still play those songs. But it's not like they got the chance to be heard properly."
"Today" seems sure to remedy that on a couple of fronts. It's released on a national label, Ecelecto Groove, and features a stellar backing band - keyboardist Benmont Tench, from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers; bassist Hutch Hutchinson from Bonnie Raitt's band; and drummer Tony Braunagel, who has played with Taj Mahal, Raitt and others. Braunagel coproduced the disc with famed producer and former Prince sideman David Z.
Rather than cut ties with his past CDs, Zito decided to cull his best material from those discs and rerecord them.
"Really, to me, it's like my greatest hits," he says with a laugh.
"More than anything, I was just happy for the songs," Zito continues. "'Cause, these songs, there's some I think are really good and they're finally going to get their due. I knew that, with these phenomenal players in the studio, they were going to get played nice and recorded good, produced well. I know that sounds corny, but I was happy for the songs."
Twelve of the 13 tracks are originals, but Zito returns to his cover band days for one chestnut, Prince's "Little Red Corvette," done in a slow acoustic style.
"I've gotten a little criticism for that because it's something people think the label wanted me to do, or David Z wanted me to do," he says. "But I've been doing that song for 12 years. Part of my playing in St. Louis was playing acoustic Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday. I'd just do songs I wanted to sing. I'd make my own version of them. It wasn't to be cool or creative or whatever."
As it turned out, David Z approved of Zito covering his former boss.
"He liked it a lot," Zito says. "If he didn't, we'd have probably scrapped it."
As for Zito's own songs, they range from blues ("Slow It Down") and classic rock (the Jimi Hendrix-inspired "Universe") to acoustic pop ("Today") and funk ("Hollywood"). There's no easy way to pigeonhole his sound.
"I call it American music," he says. "It's rock and roll and blues and country, kind of all mixed in one. All those musics share the same base. It's not a purist thing, but blues is at the heart of it all."
Hear Mike Zito live
When: 9 p.m. Sunday, June 29
Where: BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups
How much: $10
Call for info: 314-436-5222
Daniel Durchholz is a freelance writer.