Mike Zito offers two fingers and six strings.Photo by Scott Lukes/Courtesy of Mark Pucci Media
Though he lives roughly 93.2 miles east of our city in Nederland—itself roughly between Beaumont and Port Arthur—blues rock singer/guitarist Mike Zito has a soft spot for H-Town. Even if it might piss off some residents of yet another municipality a bit more northerly.
“Houston is by far my favorite city in Texas, and definitely the best music capital. Austin is not even close. If you’re a working musician, you can make a serious living in Houston, and you can’t in Austin,” he says. “For the past 20 years I’ve been in Houston a lot. There’s obviously more going on there than Nederland! I have so many stories about Houston.”
Some of those stories involve very recent memories, like when Zito and his 14-year-old daughter just spent a two-day Houston vacation visiting the Museum of Natural Science, Cactus Music, and Rockin’ Robin guitars (“We hung out there for too long!”), before heading south to NASA. And they’ve already been to one Houston Astros game.
Zito will return in a more professional capacity on July 17 when the Mike Zito Big Band featuring the Grooveline Horns plays the Heights Theater. The show will double as an album release party as his latest effort Resurrection (Gulf Coast Records) comes out the day before, which also happens to be his 16th wedding anniversary with wife Laura.
That’s fortuitous, as the record’s title and title track take their inspiration from a period when Zito almost lost that love, though he says it came back stronger than ever. “That’s a song I’ve been wanting to write for a while, and I knew it would have a [dual] meaning about coming out of the [pandemic]. But it’s really a love song,” he says, adding that he and Laura have been together for 20 years.
“I’ve been married a time or two before. Just young and dumb and never had a real, honest intimate relationship with another human being,” he continues. “[Laura and I] went through rough patch like all relationships do. But I got sober, and she [later] got pregnant with daughter. We just kind of worked through it all, and I worked through that fear of intimacy, and it turned out great. It’s the greatest thing in the whole world.”
And Zito is glad to be back out on the road again, having already played some 20+ dates around the country since May. “We’re loving it, of course. Being able to play again is great. And at this point, the COVID restrictions are not there,” he says. “And if we didn't go to a grocery store or a bank and have to grab a mask, we wouldn’t even know anything was different.”
Resurrection is actually the second album Zito has written and recorded since the pandemic began coming after the appropriately titled (but much more quickly put together) Quarantine Blues. It does mark his debut on his own record label, Gulf Coast Records, which he co-founded with songwriter/author Guy Hale.
It’s also his seventh record working with producer David Z, who has a wide variety of credits. The producer/engineer/arranger/mixer has on one hand worked with Prince (David’s younger brother Bobby Z was the drummer in backing band the Revolution), the Fine Young Cannibals, and Billy Idol. But he’s also worked with more Zito-orbit acts like Jonny Lang, Tab Benoit, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Tinsley Ellis.
“We have a really good rapport. He likes what I do because it’s no-nonsense, straightforward stuff. He has a particular style and sound, especially in the mix. It has this three-dimensional quality,” Zito says. “With everyone I know, it’s called ‘The David Z Thing.’ He just spreads everything out and makes it so big. And I wanted this album to sound big. I look at my records like a book that tells a story, not just a collection of songs.”
Tracks on the record run the gamut from straight up blues rockers (“Don't Bring Me Down,” “You Don't Have Me”) and slinkier material (“Dreaming of You”), to more emotionally-charged numbers (“In My Blood,” “When It Rains,” “Damned If I Do”).
Zito says that “Running Man”—co-written with Hale—takes a humorous look at “the consummate politician” who “doesn’t give two shits about anything but getting elected, and will tell you anything to get your vote.” Hale’s lyrics stem from what Zito says is his label partner’s love for arguing about politics (Hale lives just south of Birmingham in the United Kingdom) and has ripped apart what’s been going in the United States the past few years.
The pair even envision doing a funny video with Zito playing the title character. “I’ll be kissing babies then jump into a limo with a bunch of hookers and drugs and then jump back out and hug grandmas!” he laughs.
A trio of covers includes J.J. Cale’s “I’ll Make Love to You” and Howlin’ Wolf’s (via the pen of Willie Dixon), “Evil.” But the most ambitious is a cover of Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord.” Written by Eric Clapton and sung by Steve Winwood in that short-lived supergroup, Zito’s version turns everything up to 11.
“Some people will like it because they like the song and some will think I’m doing it too over the top. It’s just so…booming!” he laughs. “And when people say that, and I don’t take it as a knock. I just love the song and Eric Clapton for more reasons than just his guitar playing. And he’s also a sober guy and does a lot of stuff for sobriety.”
In his autobiography, Clapton recalls that he wrote the tune while still in the grips of drug addiction, but sitting and reflecting in the garden of his beautiful first house and while contemplating a spiritual vibe.
“For me, at age 50 and being sober almost 18 years, I related to it,” Zito says. “I’m not super religious or anything at all, but I kind of have this peace about life. I’m very lucky and thankful and it seems fitting for me. I can sing it and be honest. It’s not just a cover, it relates to me. It feels powerful every night we play it, and it goes over like crazy.”
The Mike Zito Big Band with the Grooveline Horns play 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 17, at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Indigenous opens. For information, call 214-272-8346 or visit TheHeightsTheater.com. $24.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.