Chuck Berry Tributes from Mike Zito and Ronnie Wood Take Different Paths to Homage
On the cover of Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, released earlier this month, guitarist Mike Zito shows a ghostly Berry looking over his shoulder. On his Mad Lad: A Live Tribute to Chuck Berry, out Nov. 15, Ronnie Wood is no cover boy, letting Berry loom large out front. (Wood himself pops up on the inside cover, looking typically Stones-y — disheveled even in a dress shirt.) Both guitarists are here to serve the master, honoring Berry with fistfuls of raucous rockers.
Zito trucks out a wheelbarrow load of Berry, 20 cuts to Wood’s 11, reining in a cast that includes Berry’s grandson Charlie III along with heavy hitters including Sonny Landreth, Robben Ford, Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Tinsley Ellis, Kid Andersen, Luther Dickinson, Albert Castiglia, and Anders Osborne.
Wood has a lesser cast, and hews closer to the original Berry lines. Recorded live last year in Winborne, England’s Tivoli Theatre with his backing band, The Wild Five, Wood riffs through the Berry catalog highlighting the big Berrys — “Johnny B. Goode” and of course “Little Queenie,” a Stones building block — as well as some quieter, less-traveled gems like “Wee Wee Hours” and “Blue Feeling.”
The approaches are radically different. Zito sings and plays on all tracks, backed by Terry Dry on bass, Matthew Johnson on drums, and Lewis Stephen on keys, sending out the basic tracks for the hotshot guitar slingers to jump on. Berry’s originals are just a launching pad for the guests, who often take off in directions Berry never thought of.
“Thirty Days” is close to the Berry template, industrialized a bit more by Castiglia’s anvil-pounding clang that still lets you know that it’s Berry sweating at the forge. Ellis’ take on “Promised Land” would earn him the Berry seal of approval, chooglin’ blues that sounds dipped in good ol’ Southern grease.
Rick Estrin and the Nightcats guitarist Andersen manages to salvage Berry’s most trite composition, “My Ding-a-Ling,” with a solo that perfectly captures Berry’s essence, tweaking it just enough at the end to make you want to cut out the sordid mess of the rest and let that stand alone as his contribution. Zito does a great job setting up Luther Dickinson on “Too Much Monkey Business,” the two complementing Berry perfectly with Zito’s spot-on vocal and Berry ‘tude and Dickinson’s laid-back Berry licks.
Osborne moves the action away from “Memphis” and down a little farther South with his greasy, swampy slide interlude on one of Berry’s best.
Zito authenticates “St. Louis Blues” with the help from Berry’s grandson, who contributes a wiggly country/psychedelic insert to the rockin’ tribute to Berry’s birthplace, where Zito also lived for 32 years, working with Berry’s drummer at a music store.
On Wood’s tribute, things are not as polished. “Almost Grown” is a wonderful mess. “Watch the tempo,” Wood cautions the band, as the vocalists stagger in with a raggedy chorus of “whup hoah oh ohs” before Wood locks it down and starts the chooglin’ with pianist Ben Waters laying down a tinkly Johnnie Johnson framework around Wood’s clangy Berry-isms.
Wood’s take on “Little Queenie” embraces Berry more than the Stones did, this version sparse and rattly like Berry sounded like when he took it on the road in front of a hastily assembled backup band. Wood’s voice is perfect for the song, country-flavored rock. Waters is great throughout and Wood sounds like he’s got Berry’s hands on his guitar.
Wood brings up Irish vocalist Imelda May to sing some raw, Etta James-inspired lead on “Wee Wee Hours,” but Waters takes the spotlight away with his piano solo just like Johnson did on the original. But May gets another shot to howl on “Rock and Roll Music.”
Once again Wood’s voice is the perfect vehicle for “Johnny B. Goode,” managing to sound backporch country without it being an affectation, sticking close to Berry’s original guitar lead even while the horns try to lead him astray.
Wood has said this is the first in a trilogy paying homage to his musical influences. His reverence for Berry, with whom he toured, is apparent in his selection and delivery, hewing close to the lines Berry laid down for generations of rockers to color in and outside of.
Zito’s respect is obvious as well, he just works outside the box a bit more. But both efforts make for a homage that even the notoriously prickly Berry would have enjoyed, if not acknowledged. Hail hail, rock and roll, indeed.