A dozen years ago, Rusty Zinn was one of the fastest rising guitarists in the blues world. Noted for his incisive, consistently inventive playing and soul-drenched singing, he recorded for two of the country’s leading blues labels — two CDs for Black Top, another for Alligator — toured with harmonica blower Kim Wilson’s band, and was nominated for “Best New Blues Artist” by the Blues Foundation in Memphis.
In recent years, however, the Santa Cruz-bred, Alameda-based musician has reinvented himself as a reggae crooner. During breaks between tours with Mark Hummel & the Blues Survivors, he made trips to Kingston to cut two CDs of his original songs with such legendary reggae studio players as guitarists Tony Chin and Mikey Chung, bassists Fully Fullwood and Boris Gardiner, and drummer Sly Dunbar. Although still doing occasional blues recording sessions, most recently with Southern California’s The Mannish Boys, Zinn hasn’t done a live blues gig in nearly a year.
On Sunday, a night after headlining a reggae show at Ashkenaz, Zinn and his tight backing quartet played in the more intimate environs of Cafe Randevu, an Eritrean bar and restaurant at the corner of Broadway and 25th Street in Oakland. They currently perform there on the second and fourth Sundays of each month, and in April plan to begin playing every first Friday during Oakland Art Murmur walking tours.
The band kicked off with “Liquidator,” the 1969 instrumental reggae smash by the Harry J. Allstars from which The Staple Singers would later borrow the introduction and groove for “I’ll Take You There.” Zinn and Bob Welch, his onetime Hummel bandmate, traded blues-bitten guitar solos over the steady loping grooves of drummer Dave Flores, bassist Etienne Franc, and keyboardist Russell Kreitman.
The focus then turned to Zinn’s vocals. With Welch playing the intricate rhythm parts and talking the bulk of the solos, the leader largely limited his guitar work to simple up-and-down strokes with emphasis on the twos and fours of each measure while singing his own songs and versions of reggae oldies associated with the likes of John Holt, Alton Ellis, and Ken Booth in melisma-dripping tenor tones. Drawing on such early reggae subgenres as rock steady, lovers rock, and roots reggae, Zinn’s own tunes alternated between the spiritual and the romantic.
“This is y’all’s personal concert tonight,” he told the first-set audience of five before digging into “Stick by Me,” an American doo-wop tune by Shep and the Limelites that Holt had transformed into a lovers rock anthem. (It was raining outside Randevu, but attendance more than doubled by the second set.)
“We got two lovers right here,” Zinn added, referring to a couple at the bar. “Why don’t you rub-a-dub? Keep the romance in reggae.”
He followed “Stick by Me” with his own “A Many Splendored Thing” from his current Manifestation CD. Are you gonna love him or leave him? Which will it be? You know that he can’t love you quite like me, Zinn crooned over a lilting melody reminiscent of Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby,” sometimes interjecting Sam Cooke-like “who-ah-oh-ah” yodels between phrases.
The subject matter soon turned from romantic to religious. During his song “My God,” he cried out such lines as My God is not black nor is He white, but He’s our salvation and our guiding light and Some call him Jehovah, some call him Jah. No matter what you call Him, He is the law. Unlike Rastafarianism, with its dreams of repatriation to Africa and belief in the divinity of a dead dictator, Zinn’s vision is decidedly universal.
The second set found some in the growing audience up and dancing to the band’s hypnotic rocksteady grooves. Zinn’s reading of “Ain’t That Loving You (For More Reasons Than One),” originally recorded by Johnnie Taylor and reggae-ized by Alton Ellis, was particularly impassioned, and during the vamp he added lines from Sam Cooke’s version of “For Sentimental Reasons.”
The mood again turned spiritual. Zinn, whose carrot-orange hair was concealed by a brown beret, lowered his pitch for the original composition “Mankind,” asking at one point, Why do they call us mankind when there is no kindness at all?
Zinn has never been much of a self-promoter, but his professional profile has been expanding since Bob Bell signed on as his manager late last year. The Oakland-based Englishman knows much about the connection between blues and reggae, having been production manager for the Island and Trojan labels in London during the Sixties and Seventies and helping promote the careers of such reggae pioneers as Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker. After moving to the US in 1980, he spent two decades as the manager of Rhode Island’s Roomful of Blues.
“Rusty is to reggae what Roomful was to jump blues,” he said before Sunday’s gig. The analogy seemed spot-on.