Mike Zito is a rare find: a rough- and-tumble bluesman with a knack for wearing his heart on his sleeve and a penchant for stirring up a commotion with his fretwork. On his second release for Electro Groove Records, Pearl River, Zito teamed up with producers David Z (Prince, Johnny Lang) and Randy Chortkoff in New Orleans’ Piety Street Recording and tapped into the rugged and resilient spirit of the Delta. Along with an apt cast of local collaborators including Cyril Neville, Anders Osborne, Susan Cowsill, and Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans adds to the mojo. Still, it’s Zito’s explosive guitar and earnest rasp that steers this set.
Things get moving quickly with the rollicking, roadhouse romp “Dirty Blonde,” a rowdy shuffle spurred on by Zito’s screeching six-string. On “Change My Ways,” Zito’s stinging solos and sticky, simmering cry recalls Stax-era Albert King. Later, his menacing riffs and gristly howl reminds of Buddy Guy (“39 Days”), and his sizzling slide revs up the bawdy stomp, “All Last Night.” Naturally, Pearl River ripples with the sounds of the Big Easy. Credit drummer Eric Bolivar (Bonerama), whose lively grooves rustle up the funky, dangling strut of “Big Mouth” as well as the sassy, syncopated swing of “Eyesight to the Blind.” While dynamic displays of musicianship solidify the album, it’s Pearl River’s deep, reflective tone that resonates throughout. “I will lay my burden down, down on that solid ground,” Zito sings alongside Anders Osborne on the rootsy, acoustic gem “One Step at a Time.” The album’s title track, co-written by and featuring Cyril Neville, traces the harrowing history of the southern river’s dark past as Zito’s rips across the foreboding saga like a lightning storm hovering over a Louisiana swamp. Ardent and arresting, Pearl River makes for not only a captivating blues showcase but also a compelling listen.