I’ve been looking for new rock ‘n’ roll heroes but I keep coming up empty. I thought it might be Brittany Howard but the second Alabama Shakes album was awful. I thought it might be Gary Clark, Jr. until his new album was awful. I even ventured to give My Morning Jacket another chance but their new album was, yeah, awful. Then there was Grace Potter who I fell in love with twice live, once at Farm Aid in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and then again at the Levon Helm tribute concert in East Rutherford, N.J. I still love her but I think it’s more sex appeal than anything else.
Enter Mike Zito & The Wheel. Keep Coming Back (Ruf Records) is even better than his terrific 2013 Gone To Texas.
Zito, 45, from St. Louis, Missouri, is also in Royal Southern Brotherhood with Cyrille Neville and Devon Allman, but it’s as frontman for the ballsy, kickin’ Wheel where he truly shines. He can sting his electric lead guitar bigtime and if his songwriting ain’t up to the likes of Bruce, John Hiatt or Elvis Costello (speaking of heroes), it’s ok because his voice has now matured into a Delbert McClinton-styled Southern slur that accentuates these rock ‘n’ soul songs into instant anthems. He can also croon a right pretty country song better than anything those Nashville nitwits are coming out with these days (it’s downright criminal what passes for country on TV and the radio).
Plus he’s smart. Picking covers is an art. To hear this band—with its sax, myriad of keys, bass, drums, extra percussion and harmony-laden background vocals—tackle Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bootleg” (enough with “Proud Mary” already) and Bob Seger’s “Get Out Of Denver” is to relive the glory of those two bangers. Plus, when singer Suze Simms gets goin’, there’s a real Delaney & Bonnie vibe at work.
Zito’s one of those blue-collar types who has enough talent to pull off a Bonnie Raitt overnight-sensation deal after 20 years on the road. Raitt did it with 1989’s Nick Of Time. If the rock ‘n’ roll gods are paying attention, Zito will reap a bountiful harvest for Keep Coming Back.
I never liked the Grateful Dead. Couldn’t stand ‘em at Woodstock in ’69 and couldn’t stand ‘em at RFK Stadium in ’73 in DC when the Allman Brothers blew ‘em off the stage. (For the record, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are the two Dead gems I’ve spent many hours with around the campfire.) May I now introduce a band called Circles Around The Sun. Those who saw last summer’s “Fare Thee Well” Dead shows in Chicago, might’ve noticed the jammy, trippy instrumental music played during half-time. The response to such was so overpoweringly positive that Rhino Records decided to record it and put it out as a 2-CD set, Interludes For The Dead. (There’s a vinyl version as well as inclusion on the mammoth 12-CD/7-Blu-ray and 12-CD/7-DVD sets at dead.net.)
Circles Around The Sun is the brainchild of guitarist Neal Casal who composed and recorded five hours of instrumental music during a two-day jam. Director Justin Kreutzmann had needed music behind his intermission visuals. He approached Casal who’s the lead guitarist in The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and a part-time member of Phil Lesh & Friends. He took his keyboardist Adam MacDougall from both those bands and added bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy. The result is a meandering groooooove perfect for driving (which I did) or as hippie background music. Tasteful, honest, spare, you can’t not like it!