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Blues with a side of Czech

Mike Zito strides into C.R. with Ruf Records Blues Caravan

LISA GRAY

Texas bluesman and St. Louis native Mike Zito is returning to Cedar Rapids for the Saturday (8/9) Czech Village Blues festival in Cedar Rapids. He’s part of the headlining Ruf Records Blues Caravan, along with Bernard Allison and Vanja Sky.
LISA GRAY Texas bluesman and St. Louis native Mike Zito is returning to Cedar Rapids for the Saturday (8/9) Czech Village Blues festival in Cedar Rapids. He’s part of the headlining Ruf Records Blues Caravan, along with Bernard Allison and Vanja Sky.

When Mike Zito visits the Czech Village in Cedar Rapids on Saturday (8/11), he’ll make a request.

“I’ll ask for kolaches,” Zito said. “I know a little bit about Czech food.”

The gregarious Texan indulges in Czech delicacies such as kolaches, which is a type of pastry that holds a portion of fruit.

“There are a lot of Czech delis in Texas,” the St. Louis native said by phone from Galveston. “For some reason, a number of Czechs moved to Texas.”

Texas is home to a plethora of kolache vendors, and the Lone Star state also serves up plenty of blues.

Zito, 47, knows more about blues than kolaches. The venerable veteran guitarist has been on the blues circuit for more than 20 years.

“It’s my passion,” he said. “Music has been my passion since I was a little kid.”

As a tyke, Zito was exposed to big band music.

“My father was in his 40s when he had me and that’s what he loved,” Zito said.

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But he had an epiphany at age 8 when he stumbled upon Van Halen’s eponymous debut album in 1978. Zito’s young mind was blown after listening to Eddie Van Halen expand on the sonic lexicon courtesy of his guitar wizardry, particularly tapping.

“Eddie Van Halen changed my life,” Zito said. “When I heard (Van Halen’s) ‘Eruption,’ I had to have a guitar.”

Zito’s parents not only presented their son with a guitar, they also purchased a record player.

“I don’t know how they bought those things for me, since we didn’t have much money,” Zito said. “But I got a guitar from the J.C. Penney catalog for Christmas. I couldn’t put that guitar down.”

Zito gravitated toward the blues as a teenager.

“There’s is just something about the blues,” Zito said. “There’s a purity and power to it. The genre is just something I believe in.”

The laid-back bluesman is 15 albums in and touring behind his latest, “First Class Life,” which dropped in May. The potent collection comprises visceral tracks inspired by Zito’s path from addiction to sobriety. “A second chance at a first-class life,” Zito sings during the title track.

“That’s a line a guy told me a long time ago at (an AA) meeting,” Zito said. “I’ll never forget when he said, ‘You get a second chance at living a first-class life.’ It’s a catchy phrase, which fits.”

Zito, who is married with five children ranging in age from 8 to 23, has conquered his demons.

“It’ll be 15 years in October since I’ve touched anything,” Zito said. “All my heroes growing up were drug addicts and alcoholics. But I noticed how much more creative I became without that stuff. I came back.”

Blues has come back as well.

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“There’s no doubt that the blues is more popular now that it was 10 years ago,” he said. “It became really popular after Stevie Ray Vaughan died during the early ’90s, but blues became oversaturated during the prior decade. I see more kids coming out to my shows these days. They want to see a show that offers more than an electronic experience.”

IN CEDAR RAPIDS

“The blues will never die,” he said. “When I come back to Cedar Rapids, it’ll be all about the blues and having a good time. Cedar Rapids is one of my favorite cities. The blues lives in Cedar Rapids.”

He played the 2009 Bluesmore concert on the front lawn at Brucemore, and is returning to town with Bernard Allison and Vanja Sky as the other two musicians in the Ruf Records Blues Caravan. They’re headlining the second annual blues fest, which has moved to Czech Village. The concert, staged by the Linn County Blues Society and Friends of Czech Village, will help raise funds to help rebuild the Roundhouse in Czech Village.

“It’s for a good cause and I’m all for that,” Zito.

Expect Zito to stay solo moving forward. He has no plans to resurrect his former band, The Royal Southern Brotherhood, which existed from 2010 to 2014.

“I love that band but it’s unrealistic to think about it right now,” Zito said. “We could get back someday, but the reality is (guitarist) Devon (Allman) is busy with his solo career and (percussionist) Cyril (Neville) is 69. And then there’s me. I love playing the blues. I’m just hitting my stride at middle age. I never saw this coming when I was struggling to survive growing up.

“I have this amazing career because I grinded it out. I hope other kids understand that,” he said. “Don’t give up and fight hard. I did. I battled my demons and I made it out.”

GET OUT!

WHAT: Czech Village Blues, presented by Linn County Blues Society and Friends of Czech Village

WHERE: Czech Village, Cedar Rapids; entrance at 16th Avenue and A Street SW

WHEN: 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday (8/11); gates open at 4 p.m.

ARTISTS: Ruf Records Blues Caravan with Mike Zito, Bernard Allison, Vanja Sky; openers Shane Johnson’s Blue Train and Tim & The Trutones

TICKETS: $15 advance, $20 show day, $80 VIP, free ages 12 and under with paid adult; Czechvillagefriends.org/events/

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EXTRAS: Bring chairs, blankets; no outside coolers, food or drinks (food and drink vendors on-site); no pets, no umbrellas

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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