Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Black Country: "This Band is Viral" a chat with Glenn Hughes

Seems a bit funny to title an interview piece with the words of someone other than my interview's subject, but it feels right, and those are the words of no less an expert than super-producer Kevin Shirley. And that is what Kevin is saying about Black Country, Glenn Hughes's new band, with axeslinger extraordinaire Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian. The producer is taking a very active, hands-on role for this record, overseeing the songwriting, arrangements, and generally serving as field marshall.

I spoke with Glenn at length yesterday about this exciting new band. Here's what he had to say:

"I had a bit of a vision, a dream," Hughes begins, "I had a follow-up to last year's record (the excellent First Underground Nuclear Kitchen, F.U.N.K.) fully written and ready to go, but there had to be a hold up to the follow-up. As you know, I played with Joe at the Guitar Center show in November, shortly after I had wrapped up my world tour. He had asked me to come up and do a couple of my old tunes, Mistreated, and Medusa, and as we played I looked over at Joe, he back at me, and I said that's it; this is a band!" And so it was born, Black Country.

There's ample proof of the chemistry shared between the two over on YouTube, and it is pretty obvious that this is not just two successful solo acts getting together for a one-off project. Black Country is their new group, a band, a tribe from and of the black country of England, the home of both Hughes and Bonham.

"I've known Jason since he was a child, what is he? about mid-forties now, and we've played together through the years, on occasion, and when we started playing with Joe and Derek, he just smiled."

Hughes points out that in spite of himself and Bonamassa both having very busy careers, this record may upset things a bit.

"There will be proper touring, not just going out for a few shows here and there. My voice gets stronger as I work, and this will be a touring band. We've got all the songs written, titles are in place, and Joe has clearly told me, 'I want to be in a rock band,' so he's got some Zeppelin in him, and some times he's as bluesy as Kossoff (Paul Kossoff, legendary guitarist for Paul Rodgers' Free). He's singing and writing great stuff as well."

Bonamassa has been headed down the road to rock for some time, and Hughes is finally returning to a full-on rock approach, something fans and fellow rockers have been clamoring about for years, though Glenn has kept moving in a positive motion towards his funky proclivities, and his own creative path in lieu of chasing the easy rock dollars.

"Tony, you have to understand I get asked to do huge tours, and to join big bands every year, and I've chosen to pursue my own projects, but now it's seems fated that this band happen. You've got Chickenfoot, Them Crooked Vultures, and while I avoid the term supergroup, this IS a band, and we've obviously got some good company.

"We're as bombastic as The Who, and as bluesy as Free, but we are doing some different kinds of things in terms of structure, and tempo: 7/8, 6/8, even 5/8 time, so it's not just a few chords and out. Joe's just written a song that is just blowing me away. He sings a couple, I sing a bunch, and there's a few where we're both singing. We originally had figured mid 2011 for the release, but here we are we've got it written, we'll have it tracked by the middle of March, around the 17th, and we should be done with vocals, and some overdubbing by April the 10th, just before Easter. So, it makes sense for it to come out sooner and now it should be out around September of this year.

"We recorded basic tracks for some of the songs on January 3rd and 4th, and we didn't even get a playback, we just packed them off, and didn't hear them until the next few days,and they were amazing. We've got some epics, I will say that. And, we've cut them live, with me using an old P-Bass, all of us together in one room. I don't want to be that guy, saying supergroup. But if you had told me back last February, that I'd be in a rock band, I'm not so sure. What we've got is not what I have done, not what Joe's done, but something tremendously exciting, and brand new.

"Kevin Shirley is calling it, 'viral rock' and 'beyond beautiful,' and coming from Shirley this is high praise, indeed. "You know, Tony, it's funny; at one point, the critics are calling me horrible things because of bad habits and vices, and now they knock me for being mr. health nut, the higher power guy, but this band and record seems to have everyone rooting it on, the time just feels right."

We spoke for a long time about Glenn's past, his work with Trapeze, Deep Purple, Gary Moore, Black Sabbath and his famous bout with addiction, yet so much has been written about this elsewhere that there seems little benefit in my spending time on it here, but here's where Glenn left that subject:

"I am almost 60, playing with a 32-year-old guitarist, but you'd never know to listen. We are hitting at full velocity (not a bad title, there) and don't think I don't feel fear I am an alcoholic and addict in recovery and I'm riddled with fear every day of those demons returning, but I'm very lucky. I will tell you this I hit the next note with absolutely no fear, and for that 90 minutes to two hours that I am onstage every night, I am completely without fear"

I wanted to include this because it shows a bit of the character of this immensely talented, yet humble and generous man. I've rarely had a more pleasurable conversation with lifelong friends, let alone this stranger whom I've only known from afar, but Glenn is as easy to chat with as an old school-chum. That he admits the frailty and vulnerabilities that face anyone in recovery only goes to display the man's humanity, and speaks of his honesty.

I spoke to Glenn about his bass playing, which is melodic and acrobatic, as well as rock-solid.

"Well, Tony, my playing is getting better. I play at least 5 to 6 hours a day, and I'm not one of these guys from the 70s that chooses to sit back. The more I sing the better I'm able, and my voice gets strongest mid-tour. My guitar playing is getting a lot better of late, also."

This is coming from a fellow who played for a quarter of a million people in his early twenties at California Jam with the biggest hard-rock band in the world at the time, Deep Purple. This truly marks the graduation of rock into serious music, as its elder statesmen continue to grow and develop even relatively late in their careers.

Glenn and I spoke about other topics in a lot of detail, and I'll have more of his words in future postings as the band and record progresses. I'm going to follow this one closely as I think it is going to prove to be the surprise of the year, in the midst of a year that is shaping up as the best year for hard rock yet in this century. So I want to keep the focus on Black Country for today.

Thanks so much to Glenn Hughes, Kevin Shirley, and to everyone reading and all my kind friends and supporters on Facebook, where I'm always talking guitars and rock.

Peace, love, and loud guitars, tony conley

Monday, February 15, 2010

Entwistlean Logic - Bass Matters

Pino Paladino is amongst the greatest bassists who ever lived, of this, there is no debate.  In the same breath I add that I don't care for his work in the context of The Who. This comment is generally met either with a spirited defense of his efforts, or a stare that lets me know the person doesn't realize the Who even has a bass player, and that's when I realize that something has gone a bit funny.

I've repeatedly gone back and checked out clips, tapes, and such of many of The Who's performances, and by comparing a recent show to a tape from the Quadrophenia tour in 1973, I realized the difference.  The song was the bass driven epic, The Real Me.  In the new edition, Pino hits all the right notes, and generally does a fine job, but a terribly unexciting job.  I listen to the earlier John Entwistle fueled version, and I'm instantly engaged, the song demands that I anxiously accompany it on its path.  It's compelling.  It won't be ignored.  It can't be ignored.

John Entwistle's playing commanded to be heard, whether in the over the top manner of The Real Me, the barreling solos throughout My Generation, or his horn-like embellishments on Behind Blue Eyes.  His tone blasted through a mix like no other, sounding at times like a massive rhythm guitar, as on his amazing power chords that ring in the verses of Pinball Wizard, chords that are not even recognized by the casual listener as bass notes.  He took possession of Townshend's songs, made them his own, left an indelible stamp that turned rock songs into reasons for living.  Entwistle's talent made them larger than life in the grandest of fashions.

Every great band has a great bass player, and if you don't have a bass player, I'm not gonna much like your band, at least I haven't yet.  I hear The White Stripes, and yeah, I miss the bass to the point of distraction.  The Doors came close with Manzenerek  playing pretty decent bass on a Fender bass keyboard, but I always wanted to hear the songs with a proper bassist.  No, make that a great bassist.  The bass is the magic that marries european harmony to african rhythm and creates rock and roll.

Paul McCartney always talked about, "....the guy playing the bass" on the Motown stuff, and though he may not have known it was James Jamerson supplying those throbbing lines that made America dance, he knew that what Jamerson did was indispensable to the music.  Paul then proceeded to spend countless hours crafting bass lines that made Beatles tunes stand out from any others.  He spent a lot of time and energy creating parts that worked harmonically, rhythmically, and it shows in the results.  All too often I now hear radio ready rock in which the bassist merely apes the chords being played by the guitars, and it nearly drives me around the bend.

It's as if the whole ease of operation of digital recording has sped things up tothe point where musicians aren't taking the time to create parts, they just barrel through the song and pop it out.  I hear less craftsmanship on records now than I can ever remember.  I'll listen to any oldies station and be amazed at the care, skill, and craft being shown on even the most throw away old pop, rock, and soul stuff.  It stuns me to hear the differences in simple effort and ingenuity.

John Paul Jones created magic on every Led Zeppelin track in existence.  This speaks loudly of the fact that Jones was a trained orchestrator, and not just a failed guitarist.  It's worth noting that many of the best bassists come to the bass from other instruments.  Entwistle, Bruce, McCartney, Jones, Flea: each of these great bassists are skilled on other instruments, which means they know a little (or a lot) about how music is assembled.  Jack Bruce is a great pianist, Entwistle, an accomplished horn player, McCartney can make great music out of about anything, and this has a huge impact on the bass line these fellows laid down.

McCartney is as inventive a musician as has ever lived.  His bass lines never cease to amaze me, from the descending melody on Michelle, his fuzzy underpinnings in While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and the magnificent playing that accompanies George Harrison's Something.

Some of the greatest pop music of the 60s featured fantastically inventive bass lines from incredible players, such as James Jamerson and Bob Babbit's work on Motown, Duck Dunn on Stax stuff, and the unknown but brilliant Joe Osborne, whose great work I recognize every time I hear an oldie by The Grassroots.  How many bands today can you recognize by the bass lines, aside from Flea's always stellar work  with The Red Hot Chili Peppers?
One thing worth pointing out is that these fellows almost never played a repeating part throughout a tune. They always opt to vary notes, rhythms, and structures, and this creates interest that keeps you listening, and involved.  I can't stress this enough.  Repetitive parts makes for staid, and boring music, which I'm hearing a lot of these days.  Makes me howl with frustration is what it does.

This will be just the first in a serious of meditations on the art of the bass.  I haven't even touched on such topics as tone, note selection, and style.  More on this later.              

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gary Moore: A Return to Rock?

Over on facebook, I'm being inundated with the news that guitar great Gary Moore is to play a hard rock set at the Sweden Hard Rock Festival.  This is really some cool news.  In a year that appears to be sizing up as a great one for the world of rock guitar, this is but another indication that rock guitar is far from dead, in fact it appears to be afire.

Gary Moore has focused his career on the blues for the last 20 years, and will most likely continue to do so, but this show that he's playing indicates at least a slight return to rock.  Though it's hard to fathom, there are a great many people who know Moore only as a bluesman, not realizing that he reigned near the top of the hard rock world throughout the 70s and 80s as a solo artist and as a frequent collaborator with the late great Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy.

I first saw Moore playing with the Lizzies back in 1977.  He stood in for an injured Brian Robertson on an American tour.  I was bummed out for about two minutes when the band took the stage without one of my favorite players.  That disappointment didn't last long.  Moore was much more than a stand-in, in fact he stole the show from Lynott, the band, headliners Def Leppard, and everyone else in the arena.  His fiery playing turned the 6,000 strong audience on their ears.  His high water mark with Lizzy was the Irish rock anthem, Black Rose, and it was during this song that my long and subsequent love of Moore's work began.

Moore's career had started with early appearances in Colusseum II, and Skid Row, but it was only when he joined Lynott in Lizzy that he appeared on American radar. He toured with the band off and on, but only recorded the English hit, Still In Love With You, in 1974 with the band.  The only full length album he recorded with the band was 1979's, Black Rose: A Rock Legend. His stays in Lizzy were always brief, as Moore focused instead on establishing his solo career.

1979 marks the true beginning of the ascendancy of Moore to "rock god" status.  The Black Rose album charted #2 on Britain's record charts and sold well in America as well.  Moore's first major solo outing, Back On The Streets, did big business and landed him his first #1 single, the classic, Parisienne Walkways, a duet with his friend and occasional mentor Lynott.  The album features Moore's astounding guitar work, his passionate vocals, and songs.  He's joined by such stalwarts as Lynott, keyboard wizard Don Airey, and super drummer Cozy Powell.  The title cut is one of the finest rockers of the era, featuring Moore and Airey dueting throughout the solo sections.  Don Airey, if you're not aware, is unquestionably the best hard rock keyboardist in history.  In this period alone he contributed mightily to this album by Moore, Rainbow's Down To Earth , and Michael Schenker's first solo record.  Not a bad year for either gentleman or any of these great bands.

Throughout the 80s, Moore recorded and toured incessantly, releasing excellent albums and filling large venues as a headliner, and  was a favorite at festivals throughtout Europe.  This period saw Moore become both a rock guitar legend, and a hugely successful band leader.  America took to the man, but nothing compared to Europe and Japan.  Speaks more of this country's need for glitz than it does about the talent involved.

I've always been equally astounded by Gary Moore's talent.  He's equally blessed  as a remarkable guitarist, a passionate and powerful singer, and a great songwriter, equally at home with screaming rock, tender ballads, or of course, the blues.  The man possesses perhaps the most powerful, authoratative right hand in the annals of guitardom.  His playing brims with confidence, soul, and excitement.  Listen once to his cover of The Yardbirds classic hit, Shapes of Things, from his 1983 release, Victims of the Future, and you'll be a convert for life, if you're not all ready.  The histrionics on display are mindbending, featuring a great array of Moore's finest chops.  Moore was amongst the first guitarists that Ozzy Osbourne called when confronted with the unfortunate death of Randy Rhoads.  Thankfully Moore turned the offer down, as did my old friend Michael Schenker.  Both guitarists have always followed their own muse, and wisely chose the focus of solo careers, which saw both filling arenas on the strength of great guitar playing, a day sadly passed, I fear.

Moore continued playing to huge crowds and recordig excellent hard rock records throughout the 80s.  Run for Cover, released in 1985, saw Moore featuring a great set of tunes and sharing the stage with his old friend Phil Lynott, and also a gave a glimpse at what has to be one of hard rock's greatest missed oppurtunies, Moore teaming up with Glenn Hughes.  The pair duet on several songs, Hughes singing a couple, playing bass on a few and we get a taste of a band that would have been amazing had it grown to fruition.  This is another absolute must listen.  If you've never heard this album, you should remedy that at once.  It is an amazing LP, and amongst my top 20 hard rock albums.  Moore shines when singing and playing beside equals and never more so than here.

Moore rounded out the 80s by becoming increasingly Irish with every release.  He always displayed a political side with many songs concerning world affairs, and as time went on, he reverted back to his Irish roots and put out two records, Wild Frontier, and, After the War, that stand as the best examples of Irish hard rock ever put to tape.  Wild Frontier, especially is a very nationalist album, and another gem, filled with jig-tinged molten rock.  Moore takes to his hoe as a fish to water.  His passion is almost overwhelming.  Check it out.

1990 saw Moore get the blues, and he's been here ever since, and doing it heroically I'll add, but I've missed his rocking side mightily.  He brought hard rock technique and tone to the blues to great success and has hada big influence on many great young bluesers, such as Bonamassa and Davey Knowles. 

I hope that this foray into the realm of rock means that Moore will return at least a portion of his energy to rock.  This year marked John Sykes's retirement from Thin Lizzy.  Perhaps we'll see Gary take up some of that slack.  In a year that is promising to be the best that the rock guitar world has seen in many, the return of Gary Moore to the arena could be yet another high water mark.  Let's  hope.

We've got great projects coming from Black Country (Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa), West, Bruce Jr, and Laing, and more to come.  Yeah, it's gonna be a good year for guitar lovers....

Thanks to everyone who has read, and commented.  If you have anything to suggest please do not hesitate.

Peace, tony conley


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sharp Dressed Men in Three Piece Suits: guitar, bass, and drums

Today The Who will excite thousands (millions?) of duped listeners at the Super Bowl, with tapes, extra musicians (?), and a rhythm section that while serviceable, couldn't shine Moon and Entwistle's shoes. 

Me?  I'm gonna sit here and reminisce about loud three piece bands and their glory.

I just watched an old youtube video of The Jeff Beck Group, recorded live at the Fillmore East in New York city sometime in 1968 ( ),  and it reminded me just how cool and exciting the classic three piece band can be in the hands of the right few men.  I'll list 'em:  Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, The Who, Cheap Trick (I'm including bands with stand alone singers - my blog, I do as I must here).  I'll maybe think of a few more along the way, but you get my drift.

The act of presenting a guiar and a voice with just a rhythm section to support them is a brave act for a guitarist.  It's treacherous territory to attempt such a stunt - it takes equal parts of talent and cajones to pull this off.  You've got to cover a tremendous amount of territory in this position.  You must fill up a lot of space, all the time, and still manage to not become boring or repetative.  If you've never tried it, you can't know the responsibilty I'm speaking of here.  The only braver act may be that of the slitary troubador.  Can you say that your guitar playing can assume this?  That's a lot of faith in your abilities.  Says a ton about the player, says a ton about you.

The Who were the first major three piece rock outfit, and that's appropriate, given the equal sizing of Pete Townshends' talent and ego.  Townshend knew exactly what he was doing, and outfitted himself with a rhythm section as powerful as himself, ensuring no dull moments.  Townshends tones and playing also quickly came to supply a wealth of musical geography, covering an immense territory.  His rhythm playing went from a whisper to a howl to a scream, often in the same tune, and never did anyone get bored at a Who show.  The man's lead playing is sometimes short shrifted by those who consider technical abilities more important than soul and the ability to communicate, but to my thinking he may be as exciting a soloist as has ever lived, breathed and busted a guitar.

Go straight to The Who's Live at Leeds, for more than ample proof of this.  Or check out their set at The Isle Wight 1970 show.  Townshend not only entertained with his incredible showmanship, he also lead a band through a two hour show with just his guitar.  This is heroic stuff.  He transverses the tundra from the proto-metal blues of Shakin' All Over to the gorgeous chording that makes See Me, Feel Me so moving.  His playing on Pinball Wizard astounds me to this moment.  You've heard it so many times that you forget that he wrote it and played it anew at one point.  Pete is the Christopher Columbus of rock.  He not only discovered America, he conquered it, and along the way laid a template for those who followed.

Following The Who to America were two sensations of the british post-Beatle music scene.  Born almost simultaneously, The Jeff Beck Group and The Jimi Hendrix Experience both took the blues and applied their own twists, resulting in music that still resonates with audiences and players alike.

Jeff Beck must only shake his head at the riches and success of Jimmy Page.  There's no question that Page is an immense talent and has earned everything he has, most of which he stole from Jeff Beck.  And there's no real question that Beck did fine on his own and has no qualms with the man. Still, the facts remain.  I know, I can hear it all ready.  Yes, Page is the best arranger/producer/writer  this side of The Beatles - I love his work - but the man never met an idea he couldn't glom, and Led Zeppelin was certainly (at least at first) a play from Jeff Beck's playbook.

The Jeff Beck Group consisted of Beck, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood , and drummer Mick Waller.  Beck supplied volcanic guitar, spewing molten licks in every direction, as Wood played lead bass as surely as Entwistle had in The Who.  There's talk of Beck and Woodie reconvening this lineup, and while it seems unlikely, I'd love another taste.  The youtube clip I mentioned earlier gives credence to the opinion that if Beck had so desired, his band may have out-Zeppelined Zeppelin.  Beck and Wood entertwine magically, and Stewart was once a tremendous rock shouter.  The album, Truth remains a classic example of how exciting a three piece band can sound.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience came to be that same season in 1966 in the same town.  London certainly set the tone for the sixties when it came to musical invention.  Hendrix took the blues, Dylan, and The Beatles to place they'd never been, would never go.  It's important to note that these bands were working with almost absurdly primitive equipment at this time, without the benefit of decent monitors to hear themselves while playing live.  They were truly flying by the seat of their pants,and this realization makes it even more thrilling.  Hendrix created the guitar hero for American audiences.

Ready to have your mind blown?  At the same time Hendrix and Beck were rehearsing their armies, Eric Clapton busied himself recruiting Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to form Cream, who debuted in July of '66.  You've got three of the most innovative and exciting three piece rock bands in history, all literally getting their acts together simultaneously, and in the same town.  I can barely fathom this, can only just get my arms around it.

So you've got these four groups setting the world on fire when Jimmy Page finally lays the Yardbirds to rest and creates the most successful three piece with a singer band in history, Led Zeppelin.  Page took Townshends' lead even a bit further, supplying Zeppelin's records with layer upon layer of guitar tracks, often using different tunings, instruments, amps, and effects creating orchestrations never before concieved.  He may not have been first, but once he got going Page certainly became arguably the most elaborate guitar sculptor in rock history.  I still get amazed with great regularity when I headphone up to some Zeppelin tracks.  I suggest you do the same.

I don't mention too many specific examples in these blogs.  I assume you're smart and ambitious enough to do your own homework, so I do no hand-holding - i just suggest directions.  There's too many resources and music is too available for me to ruin the hunt for people.  I remember the search for great music and suggest everyone do their own.

ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons took this all in and decided to join the fray, having all ready, of course, been legendarily being paid homage to by Jimi Hendrix for earlier exploits.  ZZ Top Americanized he three piece vision by combining a dose of greasy Texas blues with the histrionics of the british axeslingers.  Never as musically adventurous as his brit counterparts, Gibbons still managed to produce album after album, show after show of guitar genius for a great many years.  Ten years on, Gibbons decided to join the crowd and offered up synths and drum machines to the Tejas stew, and millions of listeners didn't seem to mind, though I still prefer mine straight with no chaser.

CheapTrick formed about the same time, and brought a Beatles-esque vibe to the three piece for the first time.  Rick Neilsen seldom gets his true due as a guitarist and writer.  His success at both is stunning, a fact perhaps hidden by his image and team player mentality.  Cheap Trick's live sound is immense, echoing the previous partnership of a strong rhythm guitar and an adventurous bass that made The Who such an incredible locomotive.  Sure sometimes Zander straps on a guitar, but Cheap  Trick basically remains another fantastic example of the three piece concept.

I think I'll leave it there.  That should get you started thinking about just how hard it is for a guitarist to take on the resposibility of being the sole melodic instrument leading a band, and how cool the results can be.  I could write another 10,000 or so words on the topic, but hey, this is a blog.  I'll leave the fun part to you.  You go out and do the homework, find the music, get inspired, who knows, maybe even start ya up a three piece .

Happy guitaring, and thanks to Chris Wright for this morning's sermon on the three piece.