From the moment he plugs his custom-black Gibson Les Paul into a Marshall stack onstage, you sense—in the same way animals anticipate brewing storms—that heavy sonic weather is imminent. Even his superficial appearance, from the outlaw’s bandana to the beat-to-shit jeans, communicates the authenticity of club-honed musicianship. And when he plays the set’s first searing note, it’s definite: He shreds.
John Zito has been slugging it out in Las Vegas for nearly 10 years, mainly leading a power trio, alternately calling itself John Zito Band or John Zito & The Electric Church. He’s played every venue in town, defunct and alive, from House of Blues to Sand Dollar Lounge (R.I.P.). But now he’s fronting a new, expanded five-piece called Zito 77. As you might suspect, the number’s an inside joke.
“My singer, Danny “The Count” Koker, has been a fan of my music for a long time,” explains Zito during a recent chat over beers at Aces & Ales, another venue he has graced. “He suggested putting together a group and tacking on the number 77 to our name, since all of us in the band were teenagers listening to good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll that year.”
Indeed, 1977 was a very good year for rock, when classic acts such as Aerosmith and KISS ruled the radio roost. It was the year Zito, who celebrated his 48th birthday Dec. 3, tagged along with his older sister to see KISS perform at the Forum in L.A. (A recording of the show appeared on the band’s much-praised Alive II album.)
“That was it; that sealed it,” Zito says, laughing. “I never looked back after seeing them play.”
You can hear the timeless, ageless music Zito loves—Hendrix, Son House, Johnny Winter, Joe Perry—in every note he picks and bottleneck slides, whether on dobro or Fender Telecaster or Les Paul. But he doesn’t go in for Gene Simmons-grade kabuki theatrics. The jolt you feel at a Zito77 show derives from the guitarist’s fiery, soulful attack, which recalls a long-ago era when extended, psychedelic-enhanced solos were rock’s hallmark. He doesn’t rely on drugs for inspiration, but on the written works of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, on the visual power of post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh. You hear these influences in Zito’s originals, rife with images of drowning, entombment, supernatural transcendence.
Take, for instance, the riff-drenched “Rain,” about sinking into alcohol addiction and drawn from Zito’s observations of other musicians’ struggles with the bottle.
“My songs usually stem from heartbreak, death and divorce,” he says. “Those are my blues, too. If I get really bummed out, I like to sit down with a guitar and try to make something good come out of a bad situation. Like a song. “
At this point Zito has 50 originals to draw upon during the Zito77 sets. His band, which includes Shrapnel recording artist/guitar wizard Stoney Curtis, Koker (local TV personality and frequent guest on Pawn Stars), bassist Barry Barnes and drummer Paul DiSibio, is busy at Desert Moon Productions studio in Vegas, helping Zito put the final touches on his next (and fourth) solo disc, Lonely, Broke and Wasted, which features “Soul Shine,” about losing his father two years ago.
“I remember being 8-years-old and he and mom buying me an acoustic guitar at a swap meet,” Zito says. “My dad liked everything about rock music. At first he didn’t understand how I could make a living at it, but once he saw that it was my passion, he came to all my Sunset Strip shows and wore the T-shirts.”
If only Zito’s dad could see him now. He (with his trio) has residencies at Count’s Vamp’d on Wednesdays and Aces & Ales on Thursdays. And Zito77 is ready to lead a New Year’s Eve bash at Vamp’d. Not bad for a guy who refused to sell out to the glam-rock trend of ’80s L.A. and instead stayed true to vintage hard rock.
“I like it when people call me ‘retro,’” Zito says. “I still live in that era. I didn’t keep my 8-track player because it broke down years ago, but yeah, my TV has rabbit ears and I only get two stations. I’ve tried other styles but it never feels right. It’s a full-time job and a lot of work to play this music, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”