Sunday, November 22, 2015

CD Review: Billy Gibbons' Perfectamundo (2015)

Billy Gibbons' Perfectamundo
For nearly half a century, Billy Gibbons has fronted ZZ Top, that ‘little ol’ band from Texas.’ If only for acclaimed ZZ Top albums like Tres Hombres, Deguello, and Eliminator, Gibbons’ place in the rock ‘n’ roll history book would be assured. But the talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist extraordinaire has carved his legacy in stone with a rusty penknife via decades of constant touring and by (literally) showing up to play on recording sessions by anybody that takes a chances and rings him up. Through the years, Gibbons has lent his distinctive fretwork to a veritable ‘who’s who’ of rock ‘n’ blues music, from John Mayall, B.B. King, and Shemekia Copeland to Joe Bonamassa, Ministry, and Gov’t Mule, among many others.

So why, this late in his career, would Gibbons deem it necessary to record a solo album like Perfectamundo? Gibbons has often brought his fascination with other genres of music to experiments with his longtime band, whether it’s the new wave synthesizers that modernized ZZ Top’s sound during the Eliminator and Afterburner era or his flirtation with hip-hop style on the band’s 2012 album La Futura, to cite but two examples. Gibbons has been interested in Latin and Afro-Cuban music for some time, studying percussion with Mambo legend Tito Puente back in the day and, more recently, performing alongside Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi at the 7th Latin Grammy® Awards in 2006.

Billy Gibbons’ Perfectamundo

Dominated by Afro-Cuban rhythms and other Latin music influences, Perfectamundo was recorded, I’d guess, primarily to provide Gibbons with a way to get his groove on without being kneecapped by the obvious restrictions of playing with a three-piece blues-rock band. Working again with musician and producer Joe Hardy (who co-produced La Futura), Gibbons put together a multi-cultural band, The BFG’s, for this ‘solo debut,’ allowing him to flesh out his trademark sound and providing room for the guitarist to explore creative turf that he couldn’t with his regular band. ZZ Top fans picking up a copy of Perfectamundo expecting a reprise of “La Grange” or “Sharp Dressed Man” are going to be surprised – not kindly, perhaps – by Gibbons’ solo experiment.

Gibbons’ bold, ballsy fusion of sultry rhythms and his blues roots works more often than not, the five-piece band and Gibbons’ Latin influences serving as a blank canvas on which the guitarist can paint as he wishes. The album-opening cover of Slim Harpo's “Got Love If You Want It” is a perfect example of the experiment done right, Gibbons’ breathless, subdued vocals complimented by colorful rhythms, along with the dueling B-3s of keyboardists Mike Flanigin and Martine GuiGui, as well as his own spicy fretwork. A cover of the Roy Head hit “Treat Her Right” follows a similar blueprint, drummer Greg Morrow’s excellent percussion supported by bassist Alex Garza’s righteous bass lines and Gibbons’ fluid, soulful vocals. The guitarist’s original “Sal Y Pimiento” strays further from his blues-rock roots; the largely instrumental jam is an exhilarating showcase for the band’s talents, a rollicking tune that one could expect to hear blasting from the windows of a Mexico City bar.

Pickin’ Up Chicks On Dowling Street

Other songs on Perfectamundo cautiously mix ZZ Top’s lyrical bravado with an enticing soundtrack. A bawdy story-song, “Pickin’ Up Chicks On Dowling Street” is the sort of thing that one would expect from late 1970s/early ‘80s era Gibbons, but here its transcends the blues-rock genre to travel worldwide, the blazing keyboards and foot-shuffling percussion providing a high-energy counterpoint to Gibbons’ scorching guitar. However, the musical experimentation falls flat on songs like “Quiero Mas Dinero” (translates as “I Want More Money”), where Garza’s awkwardly rapped vox are shockingly at odds with Gibbons’ brief, but otherwise stellar guitarplay. The song’s too-busy instrumentation rapidly jumps from one notion to another, with mere scraps of brilliance shining through the fog until Gibbons’ inspired, Chicago blues-styled six-string vamp walks us out of the darkness.

The album’s title track suffers from a similar fate, the song introduced by a booming cacophony before descending into Garza’s trite spoken vocals. It’s a shame, too, ‘cause the song’s funky instrumental undercurrent is simply contagious. On the other hand, a cover of the Big Joe Williams (by way of Lightnin' Hopkins) classic “Baby Please Don’t Go” is afforded a new coat of paint, Gibbons and crew re-inventing the blues standard much as Williams himself did when he recorded the song back in 1935. With a big-beat backdrop, Gibbons’ growling vocals dance atop the menacing instrumentation, the B-3 keys kicking up a bit of soul while Gibbons’ short solos carpet-bomb the mix. The invigorating “Q-Vo” is a mostly-instrumental jam, an energetic hybrid of Booker T & the MG’s inspired groove and John Lee Hooker styled boogie-blues, with lively keyboards clashing with shards of bluesy guitar and fatback bass above a rock-solid rhythmic foundation, closing the album on a high note.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Billy Gibbons’ Perfectamundo grows on you, kind of like kudzu – on first listen, my impressions were along the line of “what the hell was he thinking?” Two, three spins down the road and my interest was piqued, and by the fifth or sixth time putting Perfectamundo on the box, I found myself grinning in spite of myself. Gibbons expands his musical palette here, allowing his guitar greater freedom to soar into new territory while exploring different tones and textures with his lyrics and singing.

The BFG’s – named after Gibbons’ line of personally-branded BBQ and hot sauces – are a top-notch musical outfit that effortlessly blends Gibbons’ blues-rock leanings with more exotic fare, and save for the embarrassing hip-hop stylings forced into the mix with a crowbar on a couple of songs, Perfectamundo is an engaging, and entertaining – if surprising – solo debut from one of rock music’s legendary guitarists. Grade: B- (Concord Records, released November 6, 2015)

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Fossils: Johnny Winter's Still Alive & Well (1973)

Johnny Winter's Still Alive & Well
[click to embiggen]
Johnny Winter – Still Alive & Well

After the release of the Johnny Winter And album in 1970, blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter retreated from the music biz to seek treatment for his increasingly debilitating heroin addiction. During the interim, his brother Edgar scored big with his They Only Come Out At Night album and its hit single “Frankenstein.” A common refrain during Edgar’s 1972 tour was “hey man, where’s your brother?”

The elder Winter brother came roaring back in 1973 with his fifth studio album, Still Alive & Well, the album title both an answer to the question on everybody’s mind as well as a statement of purpose. Working with his former bandmates Rick Derringer and Randy Jo Hobbs, Winter delivered a high-energy set of blues and roots-rock that included a handful of original songs by Winter and Derringer as well as classic covers like Big Bill Broonzy’s “Rock Me Baby” and the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed.” The Stones also contributed a new song, “Silver Train,” for Winter to spin his magic on, and Winter’s original “Too Much Seconal” is a bluesy, personal warning about drug abuse. Derringer’s “Cheap Tequila” is a fine twangy roots-rocker while the title track is a defiant musical statement tailor-made for Winter’s slash ‘n’ burn fretwork.

Still Alive & Well performed admirably in spite of Columbia Records’ bland advertising efforts. This ad for the album is little more than a photo outtake from the session that provided the cover artwork. Displaying, perhaps, Winter’s undeniable albino chic, it says little of the guitarist’s return after three years or his impressive and expanding musical palette. The album peaked at #22 on the Billboard magazine album chart anyway, Winter’s fans obviously excited about the guitarist’s much-anticipated return.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

CD Review: Lee Michael's Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels (2015)

Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels
Nobody sounded quite like singer, songwriter, and keyboardist Lee Michaels during his seven-album run with A&M Records, circa 1968-1973, and while some have tried, nobody has quite nailed his unique, frequently minimalist creative vision since. A soulful vocalist often accompanied on album by only a lone percussionist, Michaels explored the use of piano, keyboards, and even harpsichord in rock music unlike any other artist at the time; even when he went the full band route by adding bass and guitar, it was Michaels’ keyboards that led the parade.

A reappraisal of Lee Michaels’ place in the rock ‘n’ roll history book as been long overdue, and perhaps the release of Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels will prompt a well-deserved rediscovery of one of the great lost rockers of the 1970s. Comprised of 20 tracks, including his lone Top Ten hit “Do You Know What I Mean,” Heighty Hi provides an insightful cross-section of Michaels’ music, pulling material from all six of his studio albums and offering a representative sample of his artistic ambitions. The compilation provides an introduction, of sorts, to new listeners and is being released alongside the seven-disc The Complete A&M Album Collection box set for those who desire to jump headfirst into Michaels’ milieu.

Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels

So what can the intrepid listener expect from Heighty Hi? Opening with the controversial title track, “Heighty Hi,” (hey, it was originally released in 1968), Michaels applies a jangly, Southern gospel vibe to what appears, on the surface, to be a pro-marijuana song but seems to me to be just as likely to also serve as an apt metaphor for peace and brotherhood. Led by Michaels’ wistful vocals and intricate piano playing, the song is certainly infectious in its charms. The comp cranks right into Michaels’ best-known tune, “Do You Know What I Mean,” a studio throwaway that, while based on a true story, the singer never really cared for…and ironically, it became his biggest hit. Featuring a repeating keyboard riff and minimal percussion, the song relies on Michaels’ tortured, tearful vocals that – whether he cared for the song or no – nevertheless channel true emotion.

If only for these first couple of songs, which stood proudly alongside the typical guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll fare of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Michaels deserves acclaim. As shown by Heighty Hi, though, there are lots of other fine examples of Michaels’ musical genius. “If I Should Lose You,” from Michaels’ 1968 sophomore album Recital, masterfully blends R&B roots with a bit of psychedelic pop for a quick shot of exhilaration: Michaels’ whimsical vocals and baroque piano are accented by former Paul Revere & the Raiders’ guitarist Drake Levin’s soaring notes and soulful blasts of horn on what should have been a radio-ready chart hit. Michaels’ original “The War,” also from Recital, is a somber but moving anti-war dirge lifted above the mundane by Michaels’ anguished, angry vox and his clever, effective juxtaposition of harpsichord and keyboards to create a discordant backdrop to the lyrics.

Goodbye, Goodbye

Heighty Hi includes the non-LP track “Goodbye, Goodbye,” a high-octane rocker that was released as the B-side to single “The War.” A foreshadowing, perhaps, of the sort of (slightly) more commercial rock music that Michaels would explore on his album 5th, “Goodbye, Goodbye” is a busy, engaging tune with dynamic keyboards pitted against fluid piano licks, with steady percussion (including a resonant cowbell) and an upbeat, energetic feel that should have made it an AM radio hit. The title track from Michaels’ sophomore effort, “Carnival of Life” has a psych-pop edge that’s sharply honed by intricate keyboard runs and blustery percussion while “Keep The Circle Turning,” one of the many cover songs that Michaels visited on 5th, is provided a rich foundation built on Michaels’ gospel-tinged keyboards, the singer’s reverent vocals supported by the warmth of Merry Clayton’s backing vox.

Michaels’ cover of the Marvin Gaye classic “Can I Get A Witness,” also from 5th, was the singer’s only song to hit the Top 40, and a good ‘un it is, Michaels’ high-flying voice surfing atop a recurring keyboard riff similar in sound to “Do You Know What I Mean.” The urgency and romantic frustration found in Michaels’ vocal performance separates it from his better-known hit, and while it’d never be mistaken for Gaye’s incredible version of the Holland-Dozier-Holland gem, Michaels does the song proud. Michaels shared management with fellow San Francisco rockers Moby Grape, so his cover of their raucous “Murder In My Heart (For The Judge)” comes as no surprise. A rowdy take on the song that features Levin’s nimble fretwork and explosive percussion courtesy of drummer Frosty (a/k/a Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost), Michaels’ deft piano-pounding and gang vocals add a real sense of menace to the song.

Lee Michaels' The Complete A&M Album CollectionMichaels’ original “What Now America,” from 1970’s Barrel, is the sort of gritty, socially-conscious protest song that he could sink his teeth into as a songwriter (Michaels has stated on more than one occasion that his ‘love songs’ were penned only to pacify hit-hungry label execs). With minimalist backing instrumentation and intelligent, probing lyrics, Michaels’ plaintive vocals slowly reach a crescendo before ebbing back into darkness. The shortest of the four songs from Michaels’ 1972 psych-rock experiment Space & First Takes, “Own Special Way (As Long As)” re-imagines the typical love song of the day with a clamorous, keyboard-dominated soundtrack that, along with drummer Keith Knudsen’s solid timekeeping and Levin’s subtle guitar, takes on an authentic funky undercurrent.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

After his stint with A&M Records concluded with the release of the obligatory Lee Michaels Live album in 1972, the singer signed with Clive Davis and Columbia Records, recording a pair of albums for the label that went nowhere when Davis, the singer’s biggest advocate, was forced out of the company. Those Columbia label albums have become obscure footnotes to Michaels’ career, sought-after collectors’ items that command posh prices. After releasing one more album, Absolute Lee, on his own independent label in 1982, Michaels retired from music altogether to pursue a successful career as a restaurateur.

In spite of his unfair distinction as a “one hit wonder,” interest in Lee Michaels and his music remains extremely high to this day, better than three decades after he sung his last note. Four previous Michaels compilations have been released on CD over the past 25 or so years, with Heighty Hi offering more songs and a much more comprehensive look at the diversity and artistry of Michaels’ music. For the casually curious, Heighty Hi will satisfy your needs, providing the ‘hit’ and much more.

As for the long-suffering, but preternaturally loyal Michaels’ fan, The Complete A&M Album Collection offers the singer’s complete run of LPs for the label, digitally re-mastered from the original master tapes, thus allowing you to shelve that worn vinyl in your collection. Either way you decide to go, you’ll be hearing a lot of great music, created by an artist who was never afraid to follow his own distinctive muse. As for those long lost Lee Michaels’ albums on Columbia, well, we can only hope… Grade: A (Manifesto Records, released November 20, 2015)

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Kenny Neal Celebrates a ‘Blue’ Christmas

Kenny Neal’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas
Cleopatra Records moved further into the blues field with the November 6th, 2015 release of the talented blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Kenny Neal’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas album. Neal, a New Orleans native, is a Blues Music Award winner, multiple Grammy® Award nominee, and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee.

The son of Louisiana music legend Raful Neal, Kenny has forged a career entirely on his own talents over the past 30 years, the multi-instrumentalist creating a legacy of his own with acclaimed albums like 2008’s Let Life Flow and 2010’s Hooked On Your Love. Neal’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas is the bluesman’s first foray into holiday music, the album mixing soulful takes on traditional and modern Christmas songs, all delivered with no little soul and plenty of Louisiana flavor. If you’re looking for something to mix a little ‘blues’ into your holiday reds and greens, check out Kenny Neal’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas!

I’ll Be Home For Christmas track list:
1. Christmas Comes Once A Year
2. Silver Bells
3. Winter Wonderland
4. Merry Little Christmas
5. Please Come Home For Christmas
6. I’ll Be Home For Christmas
7. Merry Christmas Baby #2
8. Lonesome Christmas
9. Merry Christmas Baby #1
10. O Come All Ye Faithful
11. Silent Night

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

CD Review: Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977 (2015)

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977
Johnny Thunders was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great tragedies, an enfant terrible who, while not dying particularly young (he was 38), nevertheless seemingly left this mortal vale before fulfilling whatever promise Fate had in store for the tortured guitarist. Thunders made his bones as part of cult rockers the New York Dolls, his raw, slash ‘n’ burn six-string technique putting him in a rarified class with the Kinks’ Dave Davies and inspiring a generation of young soul rebels in his wake. Two criminally-underrated Dolls albums were all that the band could muster before going supernova, and Thunders went on to create a productive, if sporadic and often times maddening solo career.

In between the 1975 break-up of the Dolls and the release of his acclaimed 1978 solo album So Alone, Thunders took another shot at the brass ring with his band the Heartbreakers. Formed with New York Dolls bandmate Jerry Nolan, the Heartbreakers included ex-Television bassist Richard Hell, and later added a second guitarist in the talented Walter Lure. A clash of egos soon flared up between Thunders and Hell, who both thought that the Heartbreakers was their band, and Hell left to form the Voidoids, replaced by Billy Rath. This is the version of the Heartbreakers that released their lone classic album, L.A.M.F., in 1977 in the heart of the punk rock explosion. A year or three ahead of its time, L.A.M.F. did little or nothing in the way of sales, and Thunders broke up the band in favor of a solo career.

Johnny Thunders’ L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977

The importance and popularity of L.A.M.F. has only grown since its ill-fated release, dragging Thunders and the Heartbreakers along for the ride. Since Thunders’ death in ’91, dozens of live and bootleg albums of dodgy provenance have been released under both Thunders’ and the Heartbreakers’ names. One live set that had never been released, even semi-legitimately, is the Heartbreakers’ August 1977 shows from the Village Gate in New York City. Cleopatra Records, which is rapidly making a name for itself as an archival label, got a hold of the tapes and has released L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977. Drawing performances from two electrifying Heartbreakers’ shows that Walter Lure considers the best the band ever played, L.A.M.F. Live includes guest appearances from former New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and rockabilly rebel Robert Gordon.

First, a warning – the sound quality on L.A.M.F. Live sucks worse than a politician at a fundraising dinner. Back when the Reverend was reviewing bootleg CDs for an outlaw music zine in Missouri, we’d have called this an “audience recording,” which sounds every bit as bad as it reads. Hollow, cavernous, echoed, with solar flares of feedback at times rendering the listener mute, none of it really matters when the band kicks into high gear with a frenzied, steroidal performance of the Ramones’ “Chinese Rock.” It’s like standing in the back of the club and letting the sonic waves wash over your fractured cerebellum. If live Heartbreakers doesn’t get your medulla oblongata to stand up on its hind legs and do tricks, then turn up the amp…and if that doesn’t work, schedule your lobotomy.

Overall, Lure is right in that L.A.M.F. Live captures a high-energy performance by a band hitting on all cylinders, playing eight of the twelve original tunes from the studio album, the sound slam-dancing off one wall and bouncing hard against the other. The riotous “Get Off The Phone” hits your ears like a tsunami, leaving nothing but destruction in its wake, while the cacophonic “One Track Mind” takes Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production technique to the extreme, the instruments constructing an impenetrable, distorted sonic sludge from which only shouted vocals and piercing guitar licks can escape. A cover of the Dolls’ “Chatterbox” is loud, chaotic, and a rowdy lot of fun while the Carl Perkins’ rockabilly gem “Boppin’ The Blues,” featuring a chicken-pickin’ Sylvain and singer Gordon, is a sloppy, greasy, drunken bacchanal. The Heartbreakers’ theme song, “Born To Lose,” is a runaway freight-train teetering down the tracks to nowheresville.     

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Atrocious, bootleg sound quality notwithstanding, Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers put on a helluva party with L.A.M.F. Live At The Village Gate 1977. The guitars cut like a switchblade, and the rhythm players raise a ruckus like a thunderstorm. There’s nothing virtuoso or cautious about the performances captured on L.A.M.F. Live – this is raw, visceral rock ‘n’ roll played from the gut by guys that have nothing to lose, so why not make a joyful noise on your way out? Highly recommended for Johnny Thunders fans, or fans of the New York Dolls, or even youngsters who cut their teeth on bands like the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs or New Bomb Turks. L.A.M.F. Live will scratch the punk-rock itch you didn’t know you had… Grade: B- (Cleopatra Records, released October 16, 2015)

Buy the CD from Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F. Live at the Village Gate 1977

Fossils: Jimmy Buffett's A1A (1974)

Jimmy Buffet's A1A
[click to embiggen]
Jimmy Buffett – A1A

A1A, the fourth album from Jimmy Buffett, was a transitional work in every sense of the word. Buffett had spent better than half a decade in the trenches of Nashville trying to make it as a country singer and songwriter, playing dives like Sam’s Pizza Place and pitching tunes to publishers on Music Row. Buffett’s third ABC Dunhill album, 1974’s Living and Dying in 3/4 Time, scored a minor pop and country hit in “Come Monday,” an effective mid-tempo soft rocker closer in spirit to California-based Avocado Mafia songwriters like Jackson Browne or David Crosby as opposed to the new brand of Texas-bred cosmic cowboys like Guy Clark or Jerry Jeff Walker.

In the wake of a divorce and re-location to Key West, Florida Buffett began to shed his Music City roots and re-invented himself as a country-rock beach bum. A1A, named for the highway which runs along the Atlantic coast of Florida, mixes autobiographical tunes like “Trying To Reason With Hurricane Season,” “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and “Life Is Just A Tire Swing” with choice covers like Alex Harvey’s “Makin’ Music For Money” and John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell,” the performances blending country, rock, and the occasional island riddims. Buffett enjoyed a minor country hit with the album’s twangiest track, the humorous “Door Number Three” (#88), while the album itself struck a chord with mainstream audiences, A1A becoming the singer’s highest-charting LP to date (#25).

The ABC Dunhill ad for A1A wasn’t particularly effective or gripping, the giant head of Jimmy Buffett hovering, godlike, above a sand-coursed stretch of highway. The ad copy says little of the album save for an attempt to make a Nashville connection for the music – not the best way, perhaps, to sell the singer’s new creative direction, but then again, ABC didn’t have the spare cash to spread around and hype the album at the time. It didn’t matter, really, ‘cause Buffett had clearly found his preferred musical blueprint and, after his tiny label was absorbed by the multinational MCA Records, he’d hit the big time three years later with his signature song “Margaritaville,” the perfect distillation of his beach bum troubadour persona which would hit Top 20 on both the pop and country charts.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Hawkwind’s Early Years Remembered In Print

The Spirit of Hawkwind 1969-1976
If you’re of a similar vintage to the Reverend, then British space-rock pioneers Hawkwind probably hold a special place in your heart. The band’s early ‘70s albums like In Search of Space and Space Ritual were mind-blowing, consciousness-expanding experiences for many young rock ‘n’ roll fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Nik Turner has enjoyed a lengthy solo career exploring the outer limits of rock music, but he was also an early and essential member of Hawkwind, contributing to seven of the band’s albums during the decade of the 1970s. Turner has documented these anarchic, chaotic early years in the pages of The Spirit of Hawkwind 1969-1976, a beautiful deluxe hardback book that was published on October 30th, 2015.

Written with music historian Dave Thompson, Turner provides readers with an inside look at the band, from the drug bust of original band bassist Lemmy K to the band’s notorious Glastonbury Festival appearance. The book runs 300 pages and includes an enormous number of rare and never-before-seen photos as well as a comprehensive Hawkwind discography (no mean feat, considering their various side projects, single releases and such), a complete list of band gigs, an a reproduction of Turner’s tour diary from the band’s first U.S. tour in 1975.

The deluxe tome also includes a reproduction of the band’s 1971 single “Sonic Attack,” and a reproduction of a 1971 twenty-page 6”x9” promotional booklet. The Spirit of Hawkwind 1969-1976 ain’t cheap – the Cleopatra Records website is selling it for around $60 – but it’s also a unique piece of Hawkwind memorabilia.

Turner will be touring the U.S. beginning in November in support of his new album Space Fusion Odyssey, performing songs from the rich and deep Hawkwind catalog. The book will be available at the merch table, and Turner will be signing copies of The Spirit of Hawkwind at the shows, which we’ve conveniently listed below.

Nik Turner North American tour dates:

Nov 12 - Brick And Mortar, San Francisco CA
Nov 14 - El Corazon, Seattle WA
Nov 16 - Lion's Liar, Denver CO
Nov 18 - Shank Hall, Milwaukee WI
Nov 20 - Reggie's, Chicago IL
Nov 21 - Token Lounge, Westland MI
Nov 22 - The Rockpile, Toronto, ON Canada
Nov 23 - Grand Victory, Brooklyn NY
Nov 24 - Cafe Nine, New Haven CT
Nov 25 - The Bug Jar, Rochester NY
Nov 27 - Kung Fu Necktie, Philadelphia PA
Nov 29 - Brighton Bar, Long Branch NJ
Nov 30 - Sellersville Theater, Sellersville PA
Dec 1 - The Pourhouse Music Hall, Raleigh NC
Dec 2 - The Masquerade, Atlanta GA
Dec 3 - Siberia, New Orleans LA
Dec 4 - Notsuoh, Houston TX
Dec 5 - 237 @ The Korova, San Antonio TX
Dec 6 - 7th Street Club, Austin TX
Dec 8 - Rebel Lounge, Phoenix AZ
Dec 9 - Till Two Club, San Diego CA
Dec 10 - The Whiskey, West Hollywood CA
Dec 12 - LVCS, Las Vegas NV
Dec 13 - The Continental Room, Fullerton CA

Related Content: Nik Turner's Space Fusion Odyssey CD Preview

Sunday, November 1, 2015

CD Review: Leslie West's Soundcheck (2015)

Leslie West's Soundcheck
No matter what he does, at this point in his storied career – spanning six decades and showing no signs of slowing down yet – guitarist Leslie West will forever be known as the frontman of legendary power-trio Mountain. Forget about the years spent honing his craft as a member of 1960s-era garage-rockers the Vagrants (who recorded some great singles), ignore the short-lived ‘70s supergroup West, Bruce & Laing (who recorded a couple of ├╝ber-cool albums back in the day), and gloss over a solo career that began in 1969 and continues, better than a dozen studio and live albums later, with the excellent Soundcheck. No, for Leslie West, it’s always going to be “Mississippi Queen,” his feral vocals launched by the sound of a thousand cowbells…

For those of you who tuned out after Mountain’s Nantucket Sleighride (a Top 20 LP, by the way), welcome back! You’ve missed a lot of great music during the interim…1972’s Mountain Live had its moments, and the band’s 2007 Masters of War collection was pretty fab. There are the…ahem…aforementioned West, Bruce & Laing albums that I’m personally rather fond of, and West’s bluesier, post-millennial solo work has resulted in some fine efforts like Unusual Suspects. All of which brings us back around to Soundcheck, West’s 16th solo LP and, perhaps, his strongest and most cohesive work since, say, 1999’s As Phat As It Gets…which is even more remarkable considering that Soundcheck is a pieced-together collection of new songs and previously-unreleased performances that have been pulled from the archives, provided a new coat of attitude, and unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

Leslie West’s Soundcheck

Much as he did with 2011’s highly-rocking Unusual Suspects, West dips into his address book of famous friends, recruiting talents like guitarists Peter Frampton and Brian May (Queen), singer Bonnie Bramlett, and former Jeff Beck keyboardist Max Middleton to help record Soundcheck. The results are superb, showcasing some of the finest guitar-picking of West’s lengthy career on an inspired mix of new songs and covers you’d never expect. Soundcheck turns it up to eleven right from the start, the bluesy album-opener “Left By The Roadside To Die” all taut muscle and sinew, West’s anguished whiskey-voiced howl matched by a potent mix of acoustic string-bending and thunderous instrumentation, the guitarist’s tortured electric solo reaching deep into the darkness and garroting your senses.     

After the blustery, no-holds-barred opening track, West throws us a curveball with a lively cover of singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason.” Reinvented as a mid-tempo blues-rock dirge, West captures the heart of the song with his resonant guitarplay. Another odd cover choice, “You Are My Sunshine,” was chosen by West after hearing a version of it on the TV show Sons of Anarchy. Swapping guitar licks with Peter Frampton – West playing slide and Frampton playing straight – the two artists create a mesmerizing and somewhat malevolent take on the country classic, stripping it of its backwoods roots and reinventing it as something darker and somehow still enchanting. “A Stern Warning” is a too-short but thoroughly charming six-string instrumental which switches gears from Delta blues to ephemeral Spanish-styled guitar licks to Middle Eastern rhythms in creating a truly breathtaking piece of music.

People Get Ready

We’ve all heard the Beatles covered ad nauseam, but a short, funky, electrifying instrumental take on “Eleanor Rigby” that provides a solo showcase for virtuoso bassist Rev Jones will definitely turn your head. West has another pair of aces hidden up his sleeve in wonderful covers of Curtis Mayfield’s classic “People Get Ready” and the Don Nix blues standard “Goin’ Down.” West out-shines Jeff Beck on the Mayfield gem, his guitar tone and interwoven melodies combine with his soulful vocals guaranteed to send chills down your spine, while “Goin’ Down” is a Leon Russell styled rave-up delivered with gospel fervor by guitarists West and May (who, together, shred mightily), with Bramlett providing lovely backing vocals, Muscles Shoals legend David Hood on bass, and with Middleton banging the piano and Bobby Whitlock on keyboards.

Offered in tribute to R&B great Ben E. King, the hauntingly beautiful “Stand By Me” is done up right as a duet between West and sixteen-year-old singer Ariela Pizza. The young singer’s lofty, more ethereal tones provide the heart of the performance while West’s gritty vocals capture the original version’s enormous soul; guitarist David Biglin provides an engaging acoustic strum in the background. The duet sounds different than anything else on Soundcheck and stands out not only for the skill of the performance but also the reverence shown for a great song. Soundcheck closes with a welcome dip into the archive, West resurrecting a long-lost live version of the Willie Dixon treasure “Spoonful” featuring the late, great Jack Bruce on bass and vocals (from 1988). Performed as Cream did it back in 1968 for the live half of their Wheels of Fire album, the extended eight-minute jam shows West channeling his inner Clapton while Bruce’s wiry bass lines flow like a river beneath his bawdy vocals.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

West’s influence as a guitarist is undeniable, with instrumentalists as diverse as Warren Haynes, Eddie Van Halen, Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre, and Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple among the many citing the big man with the bigger sound as a major influence on their own music. What is too often overlooked, however, is that West’s talents extended far beyond his reputation as a louder-than-life fretburner. West is also imminently capable of playing subtle and elegant – a truth showcased nowhere better than on Soundcheck.

Soundcheck effortlessly roams from blues to rock to pop music and beyond, the disparate sounds tied together by West’s skilled fretwork. It’s one of the guitarist’s best efforts in a career littered with milestones; longtime fans will readily embrace Soundcheck. For those of you who may have forgotten West’s charms long ago, Soundcheck is a great way to get reacquainted with this engaging and underrated talent. Grade: A- (Provogue Records, released November 20, 2015)

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Related Content: Mountain's Masters of War CD review

Archive Review: Mountain's Masters of War (2007)

Mountain's Masters of War
Here’s a real mutha for ya! Mountain, they of larger-than-life axeman Leslie West and even larger riffs, have created in Masters of War a damn-near-perfect Bob Dylan tribute. Just to prove that musical is cyclical, the ‘70s-era hard rock mastodons have strung together a dozen fiery performances of eleven great Dylan tunes (“Blowin’ In The Wind” is availed of both heavy and soft acoustic readings) that, intentional or no, through choice and sequencing, represent nothing less than THE FIRST GREAT ‘00s PROTEST ALBUM!!!

Before thou believe that I exclaimeth too much, just check out the band’s opening dirge, a powerful reading of “Masters of War” with guest vocalist Ozzie Osbourne. Swapping vocals with the Ozman, West’s tortured howl serves as a counterpoint to Ozzie’s otherworldly black cat moan, the former Sabbath dirigible sounding like the Grim Reaper slipping through your bedroom window, with West’s omnipresent fretwork serving as the shadow’s deadly scythe. If this eerily prescient revisiting of the Dylan classic doesn’t send chills down your spine, then you’ve already assumed room temperature.

Rest assured, the remainder of Masters of War hits yer eardrums like a frayed wooden mallet with a cold chisel chaser. With guitarslinger Warren Haynes drenching the tune with some ultra-nasty six-string funk, West’s take on Dylan’s “Serve Somebody” kicks like a mule breaking out of its stall, the big man’s potent vocals sounding like a rent-a-preacher at a Southern tent revival. The “heavy” version of the ‘60s anthem “Blowin’ In The Wind” is infected with a contagious sense of yearning and benefits from West’s trademark slash ‘n’ burn fretwork, while the “soft” acoustic version is reverent and restrained without losing any of its power, displaying the true worth of West’s talents.

“Everything Is Broken” is the sort of blues-based, guitar-driven booger-rock that Mountain made its bones with, while the first authentic rap song – “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – is reinvented as a stomp-and-stammer rave-up with scorching, swirling guitar and the heaviest underlying rhythms this side of the graveyard. “The Times They Are A Changin’” strips the song down to Dylan’s Mississippi bluesman roots, with Haynes’ slowly moaning guitar, some fine Gospelish piano, and a cool vocal performance by West. “Seven Days” ramps up the octane a hundredfold, West’s bellowed thunderstorm vocals no match for his stinging, lightning strength axe-mangling.

Along for the ride alongside the last true rock guitarist is West’s blood-brother Corky Laing, the talented drummer keeping the beat and adding a complexity and dimension to the music that you just can’t program into a machine, ever. Mountain’s novel approach to “Like A Rolling Stone” has Laing soloing with spoken, rather than sung, electronically-altered vocals accompanied by nothing more than a heavily syncopated drumbeat. Kenny Aaronson, from the other great power-trio of 1970, Dust, holds down the bass line on most of the songs with his heavy metallic perspective on the bottom chords. Guns-for-hire like Todd Wolfe and Brian Mitchell lend their talents to Masters of War while bassist Ritchie Scarlet, who often tours with the band, throws down on a couple of the numbers.

Throughout the grooves on Masters of War, West waxes metallic Sturm und Drang, dancing to the different drummer of his own Marshall-blasted apocalypse. Will it sell? Doubtful…maybe to the a dwindling faithful rapidly falling prey to old age and infirmity…but to the young listener fed since birth on the teat of corporate radio, corporate labels and corporate pabulum, these songs might sound like vinegar in their buttermilk. It’s their loss…the rest of us can just crank up the volume way past ‘10’ and let the waves of righteousness wash right over our riff-hungry ears... (Big Rack Records/Megaforce, released July 24, 2007)

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