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Mike Zito — Life Is Hard


Take your pick.

 

Atop the zing of a slicing bottleneck slide, Robert Johnson delivered his diagnosis: “The blues is an achin’ old heart disease.” That was 1939.

 

Or, 50 years later, John Lee Hooker grooved on a promising therapeutic flipside: “The blues is a healer.”

 

Mike Zito now leans heavily on both perspectives. And sadly so: His wife Laura recently lost her long-time struggle with cancer.

 

When overlaid with that context, Life Is Hard carries all the more emotional tonnage beyond what, on the surface, already weighs in as a heavy setlist. “It is a complete work of art,” as Zito describes. “This idea of pouring my heart out in music after her death,” he tacks on, was preplanned with his wife. So, of the slew of guitar-flamed albums accrued since 2008—with his solo career; with Royal Southern Brotherhood; with Blood Brothers, his current side project—Life Is Hard stands poignantly apart. This one is excruciatingly personal, right down to the symbolic choice of majestically wounded material.

 

Just read between the lines of, say, “No One to Talk To (But the Blues),” despite being packaged as a roadhouse romp. Translate the crush of Little Milton’s “Lonely Man,” counterbalanced by ex-Double Trouble organist Reese Wynans’ storming surges and Zito’s lightning-fast licksmanship. Identify Stevie Wonder’s “Have a Talk with God” as salve administered with a distinct funk. And feel that intense blowback coming off “Life Is Hard” in both its extended, tornadic solo as well as its gut-punch summation: “Life is hard. And then you die.” Even the surprise appearance of the Guess Who’s “These Eyes,” complete with French horn, conveys a message. Because the same catchy verses that created an earworm in 1969 now serve double-duty in harboring newfound meaning.

 

Narratively, these are not hard codes to crack. And with Zito being even more intense than usual, the status of his heart is assessed far better here than by any doctor’s stethoscope.

 

In terms of an experience, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” offers quite a ride. Its high-drama arrangement travels places Reverend Gary Davis never originally imagined. For the first 30 seconds or so, Zito sings alone and a cappella. He’s an abandoned soul. Churchy voices then swarm in behind for another 30 seconds. That’s when the dirge begins its glorious ascent, gathering major thrust from the spectral band which emerges out of the enveloping black space, pulling in full choral support, gaining massive girth by the second. Phew.

 

Yet for as transportive as those four minutes become, any such climax takes a backseat to “Forever My Love.” Especially since this is Zito in his own words, speaking for himself. Venting. Affirming. Reaffirming. Unburdening. And all while a billowing string section flies escort to the arcing, teardrop notes his guitar continually directs heavenward.

 

Zito’s Life Is Hard is precisely that double-edged sword once wielded by Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker: real-life blues as both curse and catharsis.


Label: Gulf Coast Records

Release Date: 2/23/24

Artist Website: http://www.mikezito.com

 

Reviewed by Dennis Rozanski




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