Monday, August 8, 2011

Leslie West – Unusual Suspects – West’s Best?

The fact that Slash, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, Zakk Wylde, and Steve Lukather all showed up and turned in outstanding performances says a lot about this record, but it is not what the hoopla is all about. It’s not even the fact that shortly after the completion of the album, Leslie West suffered a tremendous, life changing tragedy of having his right leg amputated just above the knee, and is staging a brave comeback. The hoopla is that at 65 years of age, Leslie West has made what may be the best record of a career that has spanned 45 years.

West doesn’t want to be called a legend, but that’s exactly what he has spent these many decades becoming. The good part is that he’s not nearly finished.

Unusual Suspects is the guitarist’s first long player since Masters of War, his excellent collection of Bob Dylan covers from 2007. At the time, I called the album one of the best rock records I had heard in a long time, West had retorted, “Man, Tony, that blows my mind. You just made my day. I’m really so happy to hear you say that. I worked my ass off for two years on that record.” I can only imagine that West also worked his ass off on this one as well.

Many guitar heroes these days are relying on past glories to keep the fans coming out to shows. Too many albums are pasted together Pro Tools productions that often mean that the players aren’t even on the same continent, let alone standing toe to toe, as West is here with the fellows I mentioned previously. The production and bass playing of Fabrizio Grossi is perfect. He and drummer Kenny Aronoff and provide a stellar frame for the Mountain man’s performance.

Leslie West is most famous for being an incredibly soulful, and strong guitarist – he’s been named as a major influence by some of rock’s greatest players (Eddie Van Halen, Slash, and Michael Schenker, to name a few). He has never sounded better than he does on Unusual Suspects. His tone is more massive than it has ever been, as notes jump out of his signature Dean Guitar and scream through his Budda Amps. If anyone needs an electric guitar tone 101 class, start here. Thick chords slam about, and single notes ring for days with rich tube saturation, but the fact is that West would sound pretty much the same playing through any rig. The man is his tone, and it is bigger than life, as Leslie has always been.

One More Drink For The Road kicks off the record, and it’s a piano driven tune that has West slinging single note guitar lines that rip through the mix with fiery emotion, cascading around and between a great set of lyrics that tell a tale of woes on the road. When West, Grossi, and Aronoff slide into the song’s solos, the sound is rock and roll bliss as the rhythm section drives the guitarist into gritty overdrive. The use of the piano as the main accompaniment is a brilliant strategy for showcasing the snarling beauty of West’s stock in trade lead playing.

I find it amazing that I dig the vocals on this album as much as I do the guitar work, and the fantastic rhythm section. West sounded great on his 2007 release with Mountain, Masters of War, and, if anything, his vocalizing is even stronger and more passionate now. Soulful, gritty, and powerful, the axe slinger’s voice is now as strong and poignant as his guitar playing. Much of this is down to his choice to lead a sober life, and a work ethic that has him striving to be seen as relevant and not just legendary. He succeeds boldly.

Slash shows up on the powerhouse rocker, Mudflap Mama, a tale that expands on the tune that brought Mountain to every radio in the country in 1970, Mississippi Queen. West updates the tale, and the two guitarists go at it like they’re jousting for the queen’s favors. West says that Slash didn’t think he was necessary on this track, but Mr. Hudson’s licks mesh perfectly with Leslie’s. Was Slash necessary? Probably not. Does he make a great track even greater? Most definitely.  In any case, I’m hoping that the biggest guitar hero of the last couple of decades shows up for a cameo somewhere on West’s fall tour, The 3 Guitar Heroes Tour, featuring West, Michael Schenker, and Uli Jon Roth, which may be the year’s most highly anticipated road show for fans of rock guitar playing.

Going toe to toe and guitar to guitar with Billy Gibbons is a tall order. The ZZ Top kingpin brought a song of his own to the studio, Standing On A Higher Ground, and it had some finishing touches applied by West and producer Grossi. The result is a Texas sized slice of straight up rock that features an intro, of which West says, “Only Billy Gibbons can come up with an intro that sounds like Hendrix and ZZ Top joined at the hip.”

West makes you wish that there were two guitarists in ZZ Top – the pair take this tune, which is classic Gibbons-esque rock, and drive it ever higher. There is nothing about this that doesn’t just smoke. This is Billy Gibbon’s greatest moment outside of his home base. I thought I had perhaps never heard two guitarists sounding better together, until I heard the next track.

Joe Bonamassa is roughly half Leslie West’s age, but when these two stand face to face and sing the blues, they are truly brothers. The tune is the Willie Dixon classic, Third Degree, and once again a pairing of musical giants creates something greater than the sum of their individual efforts. There’s a definite Zeppelin flavor going on here, as drummer Aronoff, and bassist Grossi tromp out a slab of rhythm that creates a superhighway of sound for West and Bonamassa to shine like hard rock diamonds. Their guitar dual is an incendiary exhibition of blues rock chops galore, as each eight bars seem to drive the next to a higher plain at every turn. This transcends the usual cameo type appearance by miles, as these two giants sound like they are in this together to the very end. There is nothing that sounds even remotely mailed in, rather it sounds like these two are loving every second that they are sharing, as I am sure they did.- as I am sure you will.

Legend is another piano based track with Phil Parlapiano on the keys, this time a ballad that has Leslie West proclaiming, “Don’t call me Legend, I came here to play….” This may be true, and West has definitely come to play, but the fact is that the man is a legend. This is another track that features the singer as an awesome vocalist. He sounds like he’s spent the last decade devouring every soul record that ever mattered, and learned every nuance and every twist.

The next star turn is provided by West’s erstwhile son, Zakk Wylde, who turns in a predictable amount of sizzling shred licks that post up well next to West’s more tempered slabs of classic rock lead guitar. Nothing Changes is the title, and true enough, nothing does. Out of the gate the duo complement one another as they deliver the kind of lockstep rocking rhythms that have been a West hallmark since the days of Mountain’s Never In My Life. The senior partner takes the first solo, then Wylde steps in with a harmonic popping tirade of molten rock, the like have which has served him so well for so long. The minute he starts, there is no question as to who is playing, and it suits the song magnificently.

With all these amazing guitars and all this amazing singing, with all the great ensemble playing and the fine production, you could almost be excused for not noticing the quality of song-craft and lyricism at work here. West tells a lot of stories alongside his musical muscle flexing, and if you listen closely, you may well learn a bit about love, life, redemption, and regrets. He is a man who turned his life around a great many years ago, and still works at being a better man, a better lover, and friend. His tales are based on human relationships, and he’s done his time on the subject and seen his way through to the other side.

There’s a lot of great material on this album that features West, Grossi, and Aronoff without the aid of star cameos – and they are a more than sufficient rock and roll machine. From beginning to end they consistently deliver the goods - as I said earlier, the rhythm section is not pedestrian, these guys didn’t just show up and lay it down, they create excellent arrangements and there are a great many moments to treasure, in terms of ensemble playing, on every song. West and producer Fabrizio Grossi made sure that the record sounds like a full-on band that means every note and every beat.

“As far as my voice goes,” West says, “when I open my mouth, that’s what comes out. I’ve always loved the great soul and blues singers, so that is how I instinctively got my phrasing. When it comes to the guitar, I could never play fast, so I learned how to make every note count – to be sure that every lick has something to say. I believe in having a big sound and leaving space between the notes, and that space is like the point where the music stops in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It builds tension and raises the question, ‘What’s gonna happen now?’ Plus, I love to feel the speakers move the air. The heavy sound it takes to make that happen really does it for me.”

Unusual Suspects may be Leslie West’s best work yet. It compares favorably with any album from the early days of Mountain, and to his later solo work. It achieves all it set out to do, and covers a tremendous amount of territory. It easily moves from ballads to blues, from metal to the Willie Nelson cover, Turn Out The Lights, that closes out the album and sees Slash and Zakk Wylde returning for one more go around with the master, the legend (yeah, I said it), Leslie West.

Unusual Suspects is out September 19th on Provogue/Mascot Records.

Thanks to Peter Noble, Noble PR Consultancy