Rusty Zinn, formerly a much-lauded high-octane guitarist, says he hasn’t had a blues gig in two years – since he found the uplifting message of reggae and has been reborn as a crooner.
The blues nourished Rusty Zinn’s soul, but reggae music has set his spirit soaring. After a nearly two-decade run as one of Northern California’s most lauded blues guitarists, Zinn has reinvented himself as a roots reggae crooner whose songs are suffused with spiritual uplift. While his journey has been shepherded by some of reggae’s most influential and celebrated artists, he’s still shedding his reputation as a high-octane guitar slinger whose scorching fretwork provided inspiration for an array of harp masters, including James Cotton, Kim Wilson, Mark Hummel and Snooky Pryor.
“I don’t think people realize that I haven’t played a blues gig for almost two years,” Zinn says. “I was still doing occasional blues sideman work, but the reggae thing has been my key focus since 2007. It wasn’t even premeditated, it manifested. The messages and the lyrics and the whole vibe just felt good.”
He recorded most of his recent album “Manifestation” in Jamaica, where he turned over the guitar chair to Mikey Chung, a major force in reggae’s evolution since the late 1960s. The ubiquitous drummer Sly Dunbar, who has provided a loping groove on tens of thousands of tracks with bass partner Robbie Shakespeare, piloted the rhythm section.
For Sunday’s show, which includes the opening act Inner Riddim, Zinn is working with his Bay Area combo. And once again he is concentrating on delivering his bright, soulful tenor vocals while another Jamaican legend, longtime Oakland resident Hux Brown, handles guitar duties.
They’ve become fast friends over the past year, and Brown’s seminal role in the rise of doo-wop-infused rocksteady, reggae’s predecessor, jibes perfectly with Zinn’s love of vintage R&B. As the guitarist for the Dynamites, the house band at Leslie Kong’s famous studio Beverly’s, Brown recorded with a who’s who of reggae’s emerging stars.
Perfectly cast as the lead guitarist and bandleader in the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come,” he also collaborated on Paul Simon’s hit “Mother and Child Reunion.”
“Hux is so crucial in the development of reggae,” Zinn says. “He was there at the creation of ska and rocksteady, and was one of the major pioneers of those styles. It’s been a real blessing that he’s become a good friend, and essentially the bandleader, arranger and music director. When he’s onstage, I don’t even play the guitar anymore.”
Raised in Santa Cruz, Zinn grew up hearing reggae, but he became obsessed with blues as a teenager. He first gained notice with Mark Hummel’s Blues Survivors in the early 1990s, and in 1996 released his solo debut album, “Sittin’ & Waitin’,” which led to a Blues Music Award nomination for best new blues artist.