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 über-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)

Buy the CD from Leslie West's Soundcheck

Related Content: Mountain's Masters of War CD review

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