“If not now, then when?” So said Mick Fleetwood at the tribute concert he put together, Mick Fleetwood & Friends Celebrate The Music of Peter Green and The Early Years of Fleetwood Mac last year in London and which is available on CD and and a CD/DVD box (BMG).
From his spot in front of Fleetwood, guitarist and one time Fleetwood Mac alumni Rick Vito had the best place in the house. To his right there was Bill Wyman on bass and Christine McVie on keyboards and to his far left was John Mayall. In between was Billy Gibbons, Steve Tyler, Noel Gallagher and a host of luminaries. And when Vito enjoined Jonny Lang in a ferocious guitar duel at the end of Green’s “Black Magic Woman,” it felt like the whole house had burned down.
For Rick Vito a life of blues playing seemed like it was all summed up in one night. The guitarist who once replaced Lindsey Buckingham on Fleetwood Mac’s tour “Tango in the Night” and was the de facto band leader for Mick Fleetwood’s Blues Band, was well prepared.
The origins of Vito’s blues prowess harken back to his native city of Philadelphia. There a budding guitarist cut his teeth on the blues rock explosion of the late Sixties. But two nights stood out in particular when he ventured out to the Electric Factory and saw the band producer Mike Vernon once called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
“They were such a good band,” Vito remembered on a recent morning from his home south of Nashville. “They weren’t trying to be rock stars or pop stars. They were just great musicians. I had seen Jeff Beck and Clapton the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and was already into Freddie and Albert King. This band was not concerned with frills. It reinforced the whole thing of what I wanted to do. It was the direction for me and I thought ‘I’m going to stick with that.’”
That night, the band invited everyone to come back for a second night for free, Vito took up the offer and found he was one of the few people at the show. That night the band was tired and Vito described it as one of the funniest shows he’s ever seen in his life. Prone to alter egos, that night Fleetwood Mac billed themselves as Vince Vance and the Valiants. “They were really taking the piss out of people,” Vito reminisced about how they’d poke fun at people like John Mayall. With a rockabilly theme, guitarist Jeremy Spencer was the ringleader of the frivolity while guitarist Danny Kirwan was really quiet.
Shortly after Fleetwood Mac released Tango In The Night twenty years later, Lindsey Buckingham announced he would no longer tour. The band turned to Billy Burnette, a member of Fleetwood’s Zoo band and Vito. I had the opportunity to interview Mick Fleetwood and Christine McVie at her home in Beverly Hills. When I asked Fleetwood about Vito, he said that unbeknownst to him Vito was in the audience shooting pictures in Philadelphia and brought them to show the band upon joining.
On Christmas day 2019, Vito once again got the call from Fleetwood. Come out to Hawaii, he said, and help anchor a band for a London concert to honor Peter Green. Vito certainly knew the songs. He had led the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band that won a Grammy and named one of his solo albums Rattlesnake Shake after one of Green’s signature songs . There in Fleetwood’s home he rehearsed with the core house band before crossing two oceans to get to London where it all began for Fleetwood Mac more than fifty years ago at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival.
By the time they reached the London Palladium, Fleetwood was onstage quoting Shakespeare. “If music be the food of love, then play on,” citing the inspiration for the title of Fleetwood Mac’s breakthrough album featuring the triple guitar line-up of Green, Spencer and Kirwan. On this night, everyone onstage was hoping but unsure if Green would attend. A limo was on standby and a private box was reserved for the guitarist. But the revered figure who led a tortured life and suffered from bouts of paranoia and psychosis, would not come. Vito surmised the event was totally overwhelming for Green.
Less than two months later the news broke that Peter Green had died. A distraught Mick Fleetwood called Vito that night. Vito remembered the time he met Green while on tour with Bonnie Raitt and playing at a music festival in Seattle, He recognized Green’s name and approached him.
“What did you think of the show?” Vito asked Green.
“I didn’t like it that much,” Green replied in a thick English accent. “It was too cold.”
In the documentary Love That Burns, Green seems like an affable old British bloke who could have just been one of the guys in his later years. But one night changed everything. When Fleetwood Mac landed in Munich, Green attended a wild psychedelic party where he was believed to have been dosed with LSD. Friends like Fleetwood said he was never the same.
In the concert film Mick Fleetwood & Friends Celebrate The Music of Peter Green And The Early Years of Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood is joined again with Jeremy Spencer whom he hadn’t played with in years. Spencer dazzled the audience with his Elmore James influenced slide guitar and left the stage with Fleetwood emotionally looking to his onetime bandmate saying, “Too long, too long.” When John Mayall came on stage, it was like the headmaster looking at his former students Fleetwood, Vito and others who had graduated from his blues academy.
The concert was a magnificent event. For Vito, drummer Zak Starkey fit like a glove with Fleetwood. Vito volunteered to do “Rolling Man” and was elated when producer Glyn Johns insisted it be the show’s opening number. He also was excited to be able to play one of his favorite Green songs, “Love That Burns.” Among the show’s highlights, David Gilmore covered Green’s instrumental “Oh Well, Part Two.” Fleetwood recalled how he heard John Lennon on the radio mentioning “Albatross” as the inspiration for “Sun King.” And when Pete Townshend came onstage, he gave a guitar tutorial, strumming the chords to Danny Kirwan’s “Station Man” against those of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was as if Townshend was making a late life confession, turning state’s evidence long after the statute of limitations had run out on him.
That the concert happened was a miracle in some respects. The world was days away from shutting down due to the coronavirus. After the show, Fleetwood, Mayall and Vito all got mildly sick and the guitarist surmises they may have had a mild version of the virus.
If the last year of isolation has taught Vito anything, it’s the realization that he’s had a great career. Like many of us, Vito has gotten used to being home and is in the part of his life where he will pick and choose what comes next.
“If anything comes along, it has to be great,” he shared.
The guitarist managed to record three new albums during the pandemic. They’re on tape and in the can. Now that we’re ready to reopen, it seems as good time as any to start hearing his new music. (For more about Rick Vito: rickvito.com.)