Bentley’s Bandstand: Mike Zito, Louie and the Lovers, Ray Davies

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billbentley110BY BILL BENTLEY

mike-zitoMike Zito, Pearl River, EclectoGroove Records
The musicians who know how to take things to the river are the ones to keep your ears on. Mike Zito’s sophomore album has an edge to it not many blues-based players know how to find. He uses the Fender Stratocaster like a knife, carving out guitar solos like someone who knows their way around the rough side, and has decided to search for the hard beauty living there. He never tries to use notes to impress; instead Zito stands square on the mark and gets down to business. There are plenty of scars on these songs, from the title-track “Pearl River” co-written with Cyril Neville, to the chilling “The Dead of Night.” He has picked players who believe in these minimalist maneuvers, so there are no cross-purposes. Everyone finds the groove right away, works it until it gets white hot and then still doesn’t stop. Is Mike Zito possessed? Absolutely. He believes in the power of the blues to make people shimmy and sweat, all the time showing the truth inside the songs. A native of St. Louis, he lives on the road now, more or less, and you can hear it in his voice. There is a weariness that comes from life’s knocks, but there is also a beautiful belief that shines through to show us that place where hope lives. Like his debut album Today, Pearl River is a promise fulfilled. It evokes the soul of John Mayall’s early records, when he had guitar players like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor frying the fretboard without resorting to tricks. These are the guitarists that give the instrument a good name, and keep us believing in the strength of the blues to slip us salvation when we need it most. Listen to these lessons and learn.

Louie-and-Louie and the Lovers, The Complete Recordings, Bear Family Records
In 1970 a young Chicano band from the Salinas, California area seemed to hit the rock & roll jackpot. Texan Sir Douglas Sahm had heard one of their local recordings. Almost overnight he got them a contract with Epic Records and took them into a San Francisco studio to record their debut album, Rise, in one 18-hour session. That’s how Sahm liked to work, and the results were stunning. The Lovers had a simple but deeply emotional edge to all their songs, with leader Louie Ortega’s voice capturing a somewhat breezy feel that also went straight to the heart. His songs were obviously influenced by the West Coast folk-rock sound that had dominated much of the ‘60s, but it also had a distinct country undercurrent and even some Latin colors. Unfortunately, it went mostly unheard. A follow-up never got finished, and like Sahm so often found himself, the band was soon blowing in the wind. No problem, because Sir Doug had jumped to Atlantic Records and Jerry Wexler’s roster there, and managed to bring Louie and the Lovers with him. Nobody said the man wasn’t a magician. Everyone was soon ensconced in a Miami studio and importing players like Flaco Jimenez, Dr. John, David “Fathead” Newman and others, trying to capture the elusive allure of the Lovers once again. It worked like a charm, recording-wise, and the band had grown into a gorgeous example of American roots music, with conjunto, blues, rock and even soul intermingling with ease. Unfortunately their second album never got released, and Louie and the Lovers became another footnote in the history books. Luckily the Germans have come to the rescue with this 27-song reissue of everything the band ever recorded. Sir Douglas Sahm is gone now, but not before Louie Ortega and he reconnected in the ‘80s in the Sir Douglas Quintet and then the Texas Tornados and continued to tear around the world playing their music, impossible to define and just as hard to resist. Bueno!

Ray-DaviesRay Davies, The Kinks Choral Collection, Decca Records
There are some plain genius moves. Like when you hear music that sounds so inevitable, but is still a thrilling surprise. Ray Davies taking 15 of his songs and performing them with the Crouch End Festival Chorus is a complete knockout. Each one becomes a masterpiece, sounding like a brand new creation, which in many ways they are. Davies has always been someone whose originals felt like they were composed for the stage or big screen. He has a sense of drama and an eye for detail that seems like he is a short story writer. The people who populate his songs come alive before our eyes, and their human foibles are endlessly moving. “Victoria,” “Celluloid Heroes,” “Working Man’s Café” and “Days” could each be a play. There has never been an English songwriter who can make music that fills that world so fully. To all these songs the large chorus brings an emotional majesty that sounds like it’s the way Ray Davies first envisioned them. His voice is still full of the fragile vulnerability that made the Kinks’ early hits “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”—performed here as well–such showstoppers. And even those fairly rudimentary rock classics soar toward the clouds once the chorus kicks in. It’s like a wonder of nature the way it works. “The Village Green Medley” really is a dramatic work, the six movements becoming a complete story. The wonder of rock & roll has always been its ability to live without borders. At its best, anything goes. It is artists like this man who pushed it there in the mid-‘60s, and thank goodness they kept moving it along the past 45 years. At the beginning of the new film “Pirate Radio,” the Kinks kick-start that party of a movie with such perfection you can only shake your head in wonder at their pure power, and be glad we have shared the same planet so long.

Bill Bentley is a writer, musician, publicist, record producer and A&R director. He once played drums with Lightnin’ Hopkins. For more reviews and music news, go to www.sonicboomers.com

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Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

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