Saturday, October 29, 2011

Joe Walsh - Long May He Run

My buddy Joe Kroger calls me about a week ago. Asks me what I'm up to next Thursday evening. I tell him I have no plans - and he tells me not to make any, he has something lined up and I'll like it. I have this thing about first names. I always trust guys named Joe. Kind of like the way guys named Charlie are generally good eggs. So, when I get the word from Joe, I know I'm good.

Turns out he had grabbed a couple of tickets to see the sold out Joe Walsh concert at the Taft Theater in Cincinnati. Like I said, You can trust a cat named Joe.

The first time I had seen Joe Walsh in concert, he hadn't even yet joined the Eagles. He was still blowing folks away with his cadre of Colorado killers, Barnstorm. That was probably around 1975.

The years were good to Joe, often times better than Joe was to himself.

The next time I saw Joe, well, it was kind of funny. I worked as guitar salesman at the Guitar Center store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. A glamorous gig, indeed, but not without its tribulations. At least a couple of times a day, some poor unfortunate derelict would find his way into the store and become a nuisance. Working on the guitar floor, we were the sentries, assigned to remove these vagrants, and to keep the scene safe and secure for our shoppers.

I'm working the floor one day, and my boss comes up and nudges my shoulder - "Hey Tony, you've got a cleanup by the vintage wall." We called them cleanups, short for supermarket talk, as in, you've got a cleanup on aisle four.

It was one of those days when I wasn't in the best of moods, and probably hadn't made a sale that day, so I may have been a bit surly.

This guy was reeling - wobbling from side to side, doing the back and forth shuffle at two in the afternoon, and smelling like a distillery. I strolled up, grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around, preparing to say, "Hey man, you can't be in here."

I spin the greasy haired blond guy around, and sure as shit - it's Joe Walsh.

Joe says (slurs), "Hey man, how you doin'?"

Well, I'm just a bit shocked, and just a bit starstruck. We dealt with pros every day at GC, but this was a rare sighting. Walsh was a connoisseur's connoisseur when it came to vintage guitars. He had given Jimmy Page a '59 Gibson Les Paul Standard, and gifted Pete Townshend with the Gretsch Pete played on Who's Next. Joe himself was rarely seen playing anything except very nice old Strats and Les Pauls.

He looked up at the guitar wall and pointed to our current centerpiece, a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard - this is back in the days when you could buy one for what we thought was an astronomical price, but seems like spare change in retrospect.

I grabbed a ladder and fetched the prized relic. It wasn't the greatest example you'd ever see - it wasn't highly flamed and it had been well played over the years, but it weighed next to nothing, and the PAFs were as sweet as could be.

Joe said, "I'll take it!" Mind you, he hadn't even played it, he had simply held it, and smiled widely.

I told him that with tax, it would be just under $14,000. Walsh said, "That's cool. Somebody from the office will call you later, OK?"

I said that would be fine, and wondered if I'd hear back from anyone at all, as Joe was well into the wind at that point - about three sheets, as they say. But, sure enough, a little later that afternoon, I get a call and was given directions for payment and shipping.

I learned something that day about judging books from covers, or some such....

The next time I saw Joe Walsh, he was even more intoxicated than he had been that day at the shop. This was perhaps 1990, and Walsh and The Who's John Entwistle were literally laying on the floor at the Yamaha Guitars booth at the NAMM show in Anaheim. They were drunkenly jamming in their nearly supine positions, and in no condition to speak, but they were still playing quite well. It was great for a giggle, but also a trifle sad to see them legless at eleven in the morning.

I saw the guitarist once more, this time in 1998 at Konocti Harbor Resort in Clear Lake, California. Talk about big changes, Walsh was now a practicing Buddhist, and completely sober. He played a blinder of a set, as always.

Fast forward to 2011 - Walsh is on his first solo tour in some time, and playing with a new set of musicians for the first time in many years.

Fast forward to 2011, and a night out with a couple of Joes in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The cheers went up with the dimming of the lights, Welcome To The Club started the set, and that is exactly how it felt. The club was open, and the audience was dialed up and tuned in for the Joe Walsh experience - blazing guitars, catchy classic tunes, the customary dose of humor, and if you noticed some good production values.

Walsh's band was tight, and each member shined when they had their moments in the spotlight. The lineup featured two drummers, and their interlocking rhythms sounded fantastic. Joe even gave his co-guitarist several solos, and they were elegant and tasty. Three backups singers supported Walsh's vocals beautifully, and they received a huge ovation for carrying a splendid cover of Dylan's, I Shall Be Released.

The hits were flowing like a river as Walsh stepped through his career with tunes from The James Gang, to his long solo career, and straight on through to his Eagles days. He even played a new song, Wrecking Ball, off of his soon to be released album Analog Man. The record was produced by Jeff Lynne, and this song sounds like another Walsh classic, and it bodes well for the new record. You can hear the Lynne influence in the thick rhythms and lush backing vocals, but the tune itself is right from the canon of Joe.

Nobody goes to see Joe Walsh without expecting some great guitar playing, and the six stringer gave the crowd exactly what they came for. He's playing as well, if not better than ever. Once again he has rearranged the intro to Turn To Stone, but the audience was keyed in from the first chord as Walsh strummed some lovely passing chords, along with a select few incredibly melodic single note lines before squaring off with his duo of drummers to bring on the classic chords that signal the song's body - throughout the entire tune Walsh's frequent solo forays kept raising the bar higher and higher as he showed once again that he had digested completely the English lexicon of rock and roll guitar as prescribed by Drs. Page, Beck, and Clapton before he ever left Kent to ride with The James Gang. His stock as a guitarist has suffered over the years due to his job with the Eagles, and his comedic bent, but make no mistake, Joe Walsh is, was, and shall always be a guitar hero, first and foremost.

The crowd went completely bonkers when Walsh's tech made his way to the mic to attach the famed Talk Box, and we were treated to a lovely and lengthy rendition of Rocky Mountain Way. He revisited James Gang hits Funk #49, and Walk Away, and his voice and guitar sounded as vital as they had all those years ago. Several Eagle's smashes showed up in the set, with the classic guitar riffage of Life In The Fast Lane being exceptionally incendiary. Walsh then gave another nod to his Northern Ohio roots with a pretty rendition of the Michael Stanley penned, Rosewood Bitters. A few nuggets, a whole slew of huge hits, and an always ample dose of great Walsh guitar work left the sold out audience ecstatic.

Like I said, you can always count on a guy named Joe, and my friend Kroger, and Mr. Walsh proved the point splendidly.

Is it too early to nominate Walsh for another run at the Presidency? I mentioned production values earlier - all through the night, Walsh played before some extremely cool films being played on huge backdrops above and behind the stage. From huge processions of Buddhist monks, to many scenes depicting in stark reality what is happening in this country, Walsh made some great points without ever saying a word. He creates jobs, he pleases his constituency, he does what he promises to do, and he doesn't overstay his welcome. Yeah, both Joes have my vote for 2012, they'd make for a hell of a ticket.

Joe Walsh's new album, Analog Man, will be out in February, 2012.

On Meeting Michael Schenker and The Temple of Rock

"With Temple of Rock, I am entering a new stage of my life, a new level of existence - enjoying life more than ever, reaping the joy of all sorts of developments from the past." Michael Schenker.

I remember the first time I met Michael Schenker. Strolling down Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood one evening, I look up and see a very familiar face coming towards me. I had heard that the McAuley/Schenker Group were recording in Los Angeles, but I hadn't expected to see the legendary German guitarist walking down my street after midnight. Realizing who it was, I stretched out my hand and told him that he had long been one of my favorite players, and thanked him for all his great work. He smiled politely, said thank you, and headed back into the night.

A month or so later, and as I was walking through the Guitar Center store I'm managing in Sherman Oaks, and I notice one of my salesmen was having a rather animated discussion with a dapper Englishman. I sidled up, poked my nose in, and asked what was up. It seems the Englishman was wanting to rent a four track recorder - something we didn't do. The salesman was very courteously explaining this when I decided to ask the rather well-to-do looking chap why he didn't just buy one. He claimed to only need it for a night or two, and it wasn't even for him, but rather his employer. That piqued my curiosity, so I asked, "Who is your employer?" I'll never forget how he said it, "A certain Michael Schenker."

I arranged for the store to memo loan him the recorder, and told a certain Mr. Treadwell that if there was anything at all we could do for him, or his employer, to not hesitate to ask.

Two weeks later, being a man of his word, he promptly returned the recorder, and asked to speak to me personally. I ventured down to the front counter to see what he wanted. He asked me if perhaps I might know someone who would be interested in joining the band's entourage as a guitar technician. I asked him what the job would entail, and what I could tell someone it paid. After he revealed the details, I responded that, in fact, I knew just the man for the job. Treadwell asked if a meeting could be arranged - I told him it already had, and that I was his man. We talked a bit further, and I accepted the job. I arranged for a leave of absence the next day.

My first day on the job, I was instructed to meet the band at the Santa Monica Civic Center - they were performing a brief set at a benefit show, but I was to speak with no one except the band, and I was instructed to simply meet all the fellows, and to not talk about exactly why I was there.

When I arrived I parked my car and started looking around for a familiar face. Sure enough, Michael himself pulled up and parked right beside me. I briefly introduced myself, and told him that Mick Treadwell had told me to come meet the band. I asked him if he would like me to carry some of his gear, and he looked at me very suspiciously, when suddenly someone spun me around, picked me up, and gave me a huge bear hug.

"Motherfucker, how the Hell are you doin'?" Ted Nugent was never a subtle man, but he is always extremely friendly, and not a shy person. "Michael," he said, "You know this motherfucker? He's a good man!"

Honestly, I had only met Nugent several times - he was formerly the employer of a guitar tech named Bobby Oberdorsten, and through Bobby, I had done the Nuge a minor favor, or two. Still, he never forgot a face, or a good deed done, and he was always graciously appreciative.

However, this was enough to relieve Mr. Schenker of any apprehensions about the stranger who had just barged into his space. We made our way into the arena, and we both got past the guard who took Ted's word when he said, "They're with me!" Ted's band, Damn Yankees, were the evening's headliner.

Once inside, I met the band, and rather uncomfortably avoided the topic of just who the hell I was, and what I was doing there. There are two funny details I remember, however, about the end of the night when the band had left the stage. When the band came off, they were pretty ecstatic - they had played a killer set, and left to a huge roar from the crowd. Schenker, however, seemed a bit miffed. First, he somewhat disgustedly said that he had missed four notes. Mind you, he had hit another several thousand dead on, but he wasn't happy about the four he had noticed missing. The other thing was that he looked at his guitar tech and growled that he had told him not to change the brand of batteries in his Cry Baby wah pedal. The tech demurred, but Michael insisted that a change had indeed been made, he could clearly hear the difference.

The next day, I appeared at the band's Burbank rehearsal studio only to be told to wait in a broom closet while the battery changing guitar tech was discharged of his duties. Several days later, I was relegated to looking after everyone onstage except Michael - his management had decided that the guitarist's stature was such that they hired Zeke Clark to look after Michael. Zeke Clark, of course, was Eddie Van Halen's tech for many years, and had also worked for Prince during the Purple Rain years. A guitar tech superstar - my feelings were not damaged, as the fact still remained that no one touched Michael's Flying V besides Michael, he even changed his own strings. Actually, he didn't even have a back up guitar - he only had his long time black and white companion, until Clark arranged the loan of a back up Flying V from Quiet Riot guitarist Carlos Cavazo.

So you may be wondering why a suit and tie music store manager would up and leave a job that paid scandalously well to basically join the circus?

Because I was a fan. Michael Schenker's amazing musicianship had captured me at the age of 16, back in 1975, when I discovered an album called Force It, by a group named UFO. His melodic, incendiary way of playing lead guitar was something I had never experienced, and I was instantly enthralled. By the time I was 18, I could play the entire UFO catalog, and played in a cover band that featured a good handful of nuggets from the band that later went on to become poor via making Columbia rich.

The opportunity of having the pleasure of hearing my guitar hero play every night was too much to resist. There would always be music stores to manage, but this was a once in a lifetime offer. My favorite part of every day on that tour would undoubtedly be sitting on the tour bus, and listening to Michael play for a few hours each morning.

It is my opinion that Schenker is the finest hard rock guitar soloist to ever walk the planet. I also know that this is very subjective, and simply a matter of taste and one's own views.

Michael has dedicated his life to the art of the solo - the lead guitar breaks in many Schenker songs are generally very strong compositions of their own, and quite often uniquely different from the body of the tune. His solos are incredibly melodic, and filled with musical passion, prodigious technique, and fiery chops. He has been revered by a huge variety of rock guitarists over the last 30 years, many who claim him as a major influence. One of his signature guitar fueled anthems is a classic UFO cut off of their Phenomenon album, entitled Rock Bottom. Rock Bottom is a one of a kind treasure, much like Schenker himself. The wicked ricochet of a riff that services the intro and the verses is unlike any in the pantheon of heavy rock. When it's time to solo, the German whiz unleashes a thrilling roller coaster ride that remains a sonic signature to this day. Throughout his years with UFO, Schenker and the band's live shows became legendary, and eventually resulted in the recording of their seminal live album, Strangers In The Night. After leaving UFO, the guitarist became a high charting, festival favorite around the world with his own band, the Michael Schenker Group.

There is, of course, another side to the legend of Michael Schenker - it reads like a supermarket tabloid, filled with debauchery, drunkenness, unreliability, and train wrecks. Unfortunately, to varying degrees they are all true. I don't feel a need to re-hash or revisit this, as it is well known and it remains part of the story, but not so much the story I'm writing. We're here to talk about music, and music making.

Michael is a very fascinating character. He is easily misunderstood, simply because he is much less complicated than you'd gather from the stories. He is above anything else, a guitar player - he has little, if any interest in discussing the past, or even the future for that matter. Schenker is an artist, he is given to his art and lives very much in the moment.

I recently caught up with Michael, and I can't much argue with the claim made by a friend, who happens to be one of the country's best known guitar journalists, that Schenker is the worst interview in rock. What may be more important, however, is to realize why this may well be true. The interview is a part of show business - not a part of creating, not a part of being an artist. It is a sales tool used for purposes of business. This process is of little to no interest to the guitarist. Think of it like this - Rembrandt would have been a lousy interview - the man was an artist, not a public relations person.

Unfortunately, Michael Schenker's handlers have often been much more aligned to what Michael could do for them as opposed to what they could do for his career. I vividly remember hearing the tale of UFO returning home after a typically long drawn out tour of the United States, only to find that when they were dropped off at their homes by the limos that their houses had been sold, and there were new families having dinner at tables once belonging to the band members. Same thing with their all of their cars, vehicles, and possessions. Or the tour of America set up for MSG that had to be canceled when it turned out that their manager had failed to obtain the proper work documents for the band to enter America.

I asked Michael about the trials, tribulations, the missteps, and the consequences.

"I think that happens to all of us. We need hurdles in life, for exercise and development. I think it is easier when you believe, and realize this. Recently, out of the blue, I suddenly started to enjoy playing live shows. I have no idea why, after all these years. I guess it is my development! I also started to understand that metabolism slows down as you get older, so I eat what I need to keep me in good shape."

Keyboardist and guitar player Wayne Findlay has been working with Michael Schenker for over 13 years - I asked Wayne to comment on the ups and downs over the years:

Wayne Findlay, "Yeah, there have been some ups and downs over the years. I always try to stay calm and to defuse any situations, as they occur. I'm pretty laid back, so that really helps. Michael is a perfectionist, and so am I, so I can absolutely relate to him. It has given me great inspiration, both as a musician and as a person. It has enabled me to make many of my dreams come true - such as traveling the world, and playing in front of huge audiences. There is so much that Michael has given me on deeper levels, it is really hard to express in words. We have the same birthday, so we are similar in some respects. He is a great person, and is sometimes misunderstood. He also has a great sense of humor!

"Plus, I don't try to out step my boundaries. I never forget who's the boss. Which is really easy not to do - I'm playing on stage with Michael Schenker! A true legend, and my biggest mentor!"

Michael Schenker now appears to be in the best shape of his life. He is thin, clear eyed, and is actually smiling on stage, something that rarely happened in the past. For many years he dealt with a combination of stage fright, career pressures, chemical dependency and the frustrations of reproducing an accurate depiction of the sounds he hears in his head within the constraints of arenas and clubs. I can remember overhearing many discussions between Michael, and sound engineer Davey Kirkwood, regarding Michael's desire to hear the sound he captured on record, and the very different sound he was hearing on stage in large theaters. His sole concern was being able to play what he felt without being disturbed by added ambience, anomolies, and noise.

Temple of Rock is Michael's first album of new material since 2008. He is joined on the record by an all star cast that includes his brother Rudolf, Leslie West, Doogie White, Robin McAuley, Herman Rarebell, Carmine Appice, Elliott Rubinson, and singer/producer Michael Voss. The record contains some of the sharpest riffing, heaviest guitars, and sizzling solos to grace a Schenker album in many years. Once again, Michael has refused to rely on old formulas and is pushing himself into new territory as a player. 

For the recording of the album, Schenker was also reunited with one of rock and roll's truest stars, bassist Pete Way. Way also joined Schenker's band on stages across Europe this past summer, sharing the bass playing duties with Elliott Rubinson. Years of overindulgence in the rock and roll lifestyle of drink and drugs have wreaked havoc on the man many consider to be one of the best bassists and songwriters in the history of hard rock. I asked both Michael and producer/singer Michael Voss about Pete, and how he is doing these days:

Michael Schenker, "Pete is an amazing spirit, with a very pure expression. It shows in his playing and performing when he is clear. I very much hope that someday he will be able to find enough peace in his life to shine once again. He has been taken advantage of a lot, due to his generous personality, but I think he is getting better step by step."

Michael Voss had this to add about Way, "Yeah, when Pete hits it, he hits it! He is a wonderful person, and he has loads of ideas and great hook lines - it is nearly like he is singing with  his bass. It was amazing to have him join us on the album. What a sweetheart."

Voss has joined the Schenker entourage in a big way, by producing Temple of Rock alongside the guitarist, writing most of the album's lyrics, and singing the lion's share of the vocals on the record.

"Well, I've known Michael for a few years now." Voss stated, "It all started with the acoustic album, Gipsy Lady (a Schenker/Barden Acoustic Project record from 2009). We stayed in touch, then he asked me to book some time in my studio for recording new demos for a project with Herman Rarebell, and Pete Way. We started recording, and I offered to sing Michael's vocal ideas. He liked it, so we kept the ball rolling!"

I asked Voss how it was to wear hats as both the producer, and vocalist.

Voss said,"Mikey produced me and my vocals, and I took care of his performances. After that, we concentrated on the mixing and mastering. Recording Michael's guitars was a great pleasure! We searched a long time to find a good guitar sound that suited Michael, and then we collected and recorded guitar solos - some of the ideas were improvised, and others were worked out and composed by the master himself. It all went pretty easy!"
Temple of Rock is an interesting album. It may be the heaviest and most complex album that Schenker has ever recorded. Every tune is filled with interesting twists and turns, and the maestro is simply on fire. That being said, it is not that immediate - it took me several listening sessions to acclimate myself to some new territory and surroundings. Voss's production is excellent, and captures a vast amount of players, singers, and sounds in a very coherent fashion - something occasionally missing on projects with multiple cameos, and rhythm sections.

The record also has the guitarist joining forces with several vocalists, including long time band-mate and business partner Robin McAuley, on the track, Lover's Sinfony, and ex-Rainbow belter Doogie White, on what may be the album's standout cut, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

Doogie White is one of the best and busiest hard rock singers in Europe, and graciously took my call to answer some very last minute questions, which goes to show you why he gets the calls to work with so many acts - he is a pro's pro, and a classic voice:

"Chris Glenn (Ex-MSG bassist) is a mate of mine, so he and Micheal asked if I would sing with MSG in London. I did Doctor Doctor, and that was that. Then Michael's management asked if I would be interested in writing and singing a song on the new album.

White said, "Michael Schenker, on a train ride, wrote the music for Before The Devil Knows You're Dead," as he wanted me to be on the album. I just really felt the music and wrote the song in 25 minutes. Both Schenker and Voss thought that it worked very well, and that is the tale of the song!

"Michael Voss sent me the backing, and I added my vocals and harmonies, working them into the tracks. He is a splendid producer with very cool ideas, and he gets great sounds! The song itself just came out. Sometimes it just happens like that. The vocals on the song were done with a Shure SM58 hand held microphone, with me dancing around my vocal studio in London. I later re-did them on an over-priced mic, but they went with my original take, and I sang my backgrounds around that one. Michael has pulled amazing performances from everyone on the record, and put it all together - plus, he sings very well!"

I asked the veteran about the interesting lyrics to the song:

"Well, I never believe in giving an explanation of lyrics. Different day, different meaning. Take what one will from them. Just remember to be in Heaven before the Devil knows you're dead. Let's face it - we all sold our souls at some point for rock and roll."

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is one of the album's best cuts, featuring some epic keyboard work by Wayne Findlay, and a brutally good rhythm track provided by bassist Elliott Rubinson and Whitesnake drummer Brian Tichy, but it's White's vocals and Schenker's careening guitars that sell the track so effectively.

Herman Rarebell plays a very key role throughout the record - the ex-Scorpions timekeeper is featured on half of the tracks, and his instantly recognizable style gels wonderfully with Schenker's lockstep rhythms. Maybe it's all those years of working with the Schenker bloodline, but these guys sound very good together.  I asked Herman about the record, and I'll simply print exactly what he said:

"We met in Brighton, and decided to do a band with Pete Way, and Michael Voss - out of this came one song, called Saturday Night, and we were going to call the band Strangers In The Night."
I asked the drummer about playing with Pete Way.

Raraebell said, "It was great fun with Pete. We are old friends, and that's how it felt, like two friends getting together once again."

I asked the drummer several other questions, and here is how Herman summed it up:

"In regards to playing with Uli, Matthias, Rudolf, or Michael? It depends on what I get offered on a song, and I play to that. Really, I just had fun playing - I think they are all great songs."
I asked how working with Michael was different than it may have been twenty years ago:

Herman, "Well, right now he is completely straight, and that is the first time I have seen him like that, and he is playing better than ever!"

Producer Voss did an excellent job fitting some excellent keyboard tracks into the songs, and it's great to hear Schenker reunited with such great players as Don Airey, and UFO/MSG band-mate Paul Raymond. Wayne Findlay does his usual great job on the four tracks that feature his ivory touch.

So....what can I tell you?

For close to 40 years, I have been a huge fan of Michael Schenker. So much so that I once left an amazing job, just to have the opportunity to listen to him play every day and night. I have taken the whole ride, as all of Michael Schenker's fans have done.

Temple of Rock is a very good record that may require a few listens to completely sink in. But I have found the investment very worthwhile. Schenker is playing extremely well, and continues to expand his considerable horizons. After 40 years of recording, he is still developing as a player and a writer.

Everyone who worked on this record is very anxious to talk about it. Why? Because they feel that they have done good work (and they have!), and they want to support this musical genius who has given us all so much pleasure. So should you.

Michael himself sums it up very well: 

"The Temple of Rock is within me where I create since I was introduced to the amazing invention of the distorted Guitar which is for me the most enjoyable and the best possible way to express myself. The Rock Guitar Sound that I fell in love with, mostly expressed as Lead break, is what I have nurtured and treasured all of my life. Combined with the infinite spring from within and the amazing musicians around me I keep expressing an ongoing development of my Art(Being). With Temple of Rock I am entering a new stage of my life, a new level of existence enjoying life more than ever, reaping the joy of all sorts of developments from the past.

Also, it seems to me that collectively, with true expressive makers of Rock Music, we have been building the external Temple Of Rock for many years and have now come to the point of putting on the roofing and celebrating the almost completion of the Temple. All generations of this period are meeting all over the world on one stage it seems celebrating an Era of 'Hand Made Rock' which will never be the same again due to invention of new technology but of course New Temples and New Wonders will arise to enjoy expressions in new ways."

I would like to thank Michael Schenker, Herman Rarebell, Michael Voss, Doogie White, Wayne Findlay, everyone at Inakustik records, and Clint Weiler at MVD Entertainment Group for all their kind and generous help. I would especially like to thank Libby Sokolowski for her expert editing, as always. Nobody does it better - she makes me readable. What a love.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thin Lizzy - In Defense of Mssrs. Gorham and Downey

The last few years have been very good to fans of Thin Lizzy. We've seen the re-remix re-releases of classic albums Jailbreak, Johnny The Fox, and Live and Dangerous. The digitalization of almost every piece of recorded history has blessed us with innumerable Lizzy nuggets in the way of live clips, demos, and interviews. Maybe the coolest thing is that Lizzy stalwarts Scott Gorham and Brian Downey have managed to keep a very vital, and viable version of the band's greatest hits on the road.

About once a month I read a remark on the Web that states - without Lynott there is no Thin Lizzy, and that's that. Well, it's just not that simple. Granted - Phillip Lynott was one of life's true geniuses. Blessed with rock star cool so cool it killed him, a voice that oozed soul as thick as brown ale, and a pen that was perhaps sharper than Van Morrison's, but just short of Bobby D's. I would be the first to say that no being, living or dead, could replace Phil. However, I would also be the last to say that Gorham and Downey have no right to play the material they originally played, or no right to call it Thin Lizzy.

Here's how I see it.

This is about rock and roll ethics - pay attention. Let's look first at the contribution of the aforementioned Gorham and Downey.

Drummer Brian Downey's case is crazy easy to make. He played every snare crack that ever appeared on a Thin Lizzy record, and in a spectacular fashion that has me listing him alongside Bonham, Moon, Starr, Watts, and Ian Paice as stickmen whose bands would not have been the same without their brilliance. The man is one of the most musical drummers ever to grace rock and roll. He's still performing brilliantly and dependably in Thin Lizzy 2011. For my money, Brian Downey could take a kazoo band out and call it Thin Lizzy. Worry not, the man has always made sure that anything he participates in is top notch.

Scott Gorham is one of the co-creators of arguably the most recognizable twin lead guitar sound that any band ever developed. This much loved style of lead guitar harmonization and lead/solo trade offs came after the band heard a single track guitar solo being repeated in harmony via a tape delay, created by an engineer in the studio. The timing of the echo created by the tape delay resulted in the repeated notes being in harmony with the original line. Many bands have followed in Lizzy's footsteps with dual lead players, and harmony parts, but none has shown as brightly as the teams that were always one half Scott Gorham. Scott has been in Thin Lizzy since 1974 - he has flown the flag proudly - never short selling the band's legacy, or scrimping on the cost or quality of players hired to fill the roles left open by no choice of his own. Every version of Thin Lizzy that ever played a show played it with the best people available for the jobs.

For someone to say that Gorham has no right to the name Thin Lizzy would be on the same level with making a happily married widow surrender her dead husband's name. The widow earned the right, and so has Scott Gorham. He has always performed with excellence, and honor. I cannot see how anyone can fault the man in any way. You can bet that he has spent more than a few nights knowing well that Phil's fate could easily have been his as well. They both played hard, and paid dearly. Currently, he's playing brilliantly, and being generous with sharing the guitar star opportunities with whichever excellent player is in the historically rotating second chair. He's been a damned good steward.

In June of 2009, John Sykes decided to depart Thin Lizzy for the final time. One thing that the Internet has done for classic rock bands has been to not just keep, but to even greatly escalate their legends. Demand for viable versions of classic bands has seldom been greater on the concert circuit. When Sykes decided he's had enough, Scott Gorham decided to keep the ship afloat, and discovered that it was easier to hire both a singer and another guitar player than try to find one person who could adequately replace the blonde wunderkind.

He chose Ricky Warwick, best known previously as the frontman for Scottish rockers, The Almighty. The singer is a close friend of Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, who recommended the vocalist for the band while he and Gorham were handling the re-mixes and packaging for the re-release of the classic Lizzy records mentioned earlier. If you have not heard, or purchased any of the re-packagings, you should. These classic albums were remixed, remastered - each contains a remastered version of the original disc and a second disc of rare bonus tracks. "Live and Dangerous" is a two disc set and a third disc DVD. They all sound fantastic, and are worth a new consideration.

Warwick has grown well into his position as the onstage spokesman of one of rock's greatest franchises. Granted, he's not Phil, but then nobody else is, either. What he is, though, is a bona fide Scottish hard rock story teller - and there is much to be said for that if a guy is going to sing Emerald, or Whiskey In The Jar. He's got a great edgy rock and roll voice, and he has gotten much better with the slow stuff. He's doing an honorable Still In Love With You, and a killer version of Don't Believe A Word. This can't be the easiest job in the world, in fact, I give the guy loads of credit for even trying. He's done very, very well, and continues to get better with every tour.

Replacing the second guitar slot has certainly proven to be tougher. This has to be a stressful part of Gorham's job, to replace someone he must work with very closely three times in a couple of years.

First up was Vivian Campbell, on hiatus from his day job with Def Leppard. Campbell was a great choice, as he's wanted to be in the band ever since he was in the running for the job when Sykes joined the band way back in 1982. His playing mixed very well with Gorham's, and his love of cracking open the old wah pedal fit like glove, allowing him to inject some of his own style into his solo moments. However, all too soon it was suddenly Def Leppard's big touring season, and he had to report back to his regular job, one that he has held now for almost twenty years. Captured on the band's home brewed live release, Live In London 2011, Campbell acquits himself very well, especially on the epic Black Rose.

Campbell's departure led to the arrival of Richard Fortus, another hired gun, whose day gig is with Guns & Roses. I didn't know all that much about the guitarist when I heard he had been chosen for the Lizzy gig. He had been listed as rhythm guitarist on Chinese Democracy, and had a great reputation as a New York Sessioneer. I was completely unprepared and shocked when I heard him with the band at this summer's Hellfest in France. Actually that performance may have ruined me for any version of the band in which Fortus does not play. His is simply the most recognizable guitar voice to hit the band since Gary Moore. This isn't a knock on Sykes, either - John is a magnificent player, but I always felt him a bit too metal for Thin Lizzy, and better utilized in Whitesnake, Blue Murder, and his solo career. However, Richard Fortus sounded incredible and very in-context with the Lizzies. His playing was exuberant, filled with passion and mad chops, and his tone....well, his tone may actually as good as any hard rock tone I've ever heard. The entire set from Hellfest blew my mind. It just kept getting better, and better. This is the guitarist I would love to see recording new music with the band, should that at some point occur (I wish it would).

Alas, once again the primary employer returned to production, and Fortus left the fold all too soon.

Joining Thin Lizzy for their 2011 Fall Tour of America as opening act for Judas Priest (and doing select headlining dates) is Damon Johnson, straight off a long stint with Alice Cooper. I have only seen a few clips of this latest version of the band, but Johnson seems to be doing a great job, which again points out that Gorham is doing the best he can to keep top shelf players in his band. I'll know more when I see the band next month in Cincinnati - I'm really looking forward to seeing it go down in person.

What about a new Thin Lizzy record?

Now this is a whole other can of worms, and it's where I have some serious concerns. This is a tough call. I do believe that the band has every right to record new music, and to release it under the Thin Lizzy name. However, to release new music under that name is a huge responsibility, and has not been done since Phil died. That being said, it would be very ballsy, as no one currently in the band has released any original music that is even close to the standard set by Lynott. It would come with a tremendous amount of pressure, and a dim view from a great many music fans. Personally, I would love to see them try it. Send Warwick back to Scotland for a couple of months, with nothing but pen, paper, and a busman's wages. Take some of the dough that's been made on these recent tours, and hire a ball busting producer who loves the legacy. Then make the best Thin Lizzy album that can be made. If at the end, it isn't up to snuff? Bury it. Deep.

I would like to think there's some more great Thin Lizzy music to be made, but it can't be less than what came before. Let's face it, not every Thin Lizzy album was a classic, there were many ups and downs with the band at even the best of times. They were a great band - they were a gang, they were rock and roll. No reason they can't be, once again. They've earned the right after producing consistently great shows, and keeping the quality high in hard times. Whatever the future brings, I congratulate Gorham, and Downey on what they have accomplished - they have done their duty with grace, and great honor. Don't dislike these guys for doing what they do - they didn't kill Phil, but they have managed to help keep his memory alive.

In the meantime, get out and see the band if you have the chance - it's a bunch of great musicians playing a bunch of the best rock and roll ever written.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Voodoo Highway - Broken Uncle's Inn - A Fabulous First Album

I don't exactly remember how Voodoo Highway entered my consciousness, but I do remember that they hit it like a ton of bricks and wearing a big grin. It was some sort of social media meeting, and I immediately decided that these upstarts were the best all new hard rock band to hit the world scene in several seasons. Busting out out of Italy (Italy?) this band wears its influences like a badge, but they do it damned honorably, and with some balls.

Here is a bit of what the world is saying:

"The new movement of heavy metal has arrived! This band is the next Deep Purple!" (Craig Gruber, former bassist from Rainbow, and Gary Moore)

"Just one word for this band: "Brilliant"!" (VH1 Channel)

"Best thing to come out of Italy since Super Mario!" (Classic Rock Channel)

Personally, I call them the best thing to come out of Italy since Gina Lollabrigida, but I get it. I agree with all of the above, and actually think that these guys are just getting started. They are a young band, and I expect that their next long player will blow this one away, but let's not get ahead of ourselves, let's talk about Broken Uncle's Inn, which is one hell of a good hard rock record.

Much has been said about the obvious Deep Purple connection as the band's key influence, and that is certainly no mistake. This album would have fitted rather nicely in between Blackmore's exit, and the entry of Tommy Bolin. Had these guys have hit the states in 1975 they would now be legends. They would have had their own Starship, and a trail of groupies from here to there, and back again. They exhibit none of the whiny shit I hear from today's radio rock, and all of the chest beating beauty of the classic English hard rockers. However, I must say that while they use the Purple template, it never comes across as plagiarism, but rather like genuine love and respect.

Opener Til It Bleeds is a great example. The band pulls every shade of Purple out of their playbook, and you've never been happier to hear the return of a familiar sound in a new wrapper. From a beautifully wailing Hammond organ to the staccato Strat/Marshall intro of the guitar solo, they certainly show that they learned their lessons well. Everyone in the band pulls their weight brilliantly, especially lead vocalist Federico De Marco, who keeps things from getting too influenced by the past - he has plenty of power and a great range. 

Anthemic power rock is on tap with The Fire Will Burn Away, and I can see arenas full of pumping fists along with a huge sing-a-long chorus. This is much less Purple and more 80s riff rock. Yeah, these fellows would have been high up on past bills at Reading and Donington, and I hope they hit the European festival scene hard next summer. This music will blow away fans of classic rock and metal. Guitarist Matteo Bizzarri tears this one up with scorching hot riffs and a lovely wah fueled solo.

If there was ever a song that kept an album out of Walmart, it would have to be J.C. Superfuck! While incredibly politically incorrect, the rock on display here is amazingly correct. This tune sounds like a slightly pornographic, and hugely blasphemous version of Chinn/Chap bands such as, The Sweet, who owned the British charts for much of the early 70s. The tones and dynamic interplay at work here is right on the mark - Voodoo Highway is always on the mark with what they deliver.

The band never sounds like upstarts - they consistently display great taste in what they play, and how they interact. The keyboards are always driving things, along with a splendid performance by now departed drummer Lorenzo Gollini. This is more rock solid riffing than virtuosity, and they wisely kept things focused on the songs and arrangements for their debut. I'm guessing in the future we'll see more histrionics, but believe me, their is plenty of great playing going on in every cut. Bassist Filippo Cavallini supplies great playing on every track, and also provides fantastic vocals throughout.

Window kicks off with some nice keyboard wizardry from Allesandro Duo', whose playing across the whole of the album is nothing less than superb - the best straight up rock and roll organist since Jon Lord. This one almost encroaches upon prog rock, but with a thunderous drum track that keeps it in the realm of harder rock. A great fucking tune. Di Marco's vocals are acrobatic and always very melodic. This might show the band off better than any track here, and I'd guess this is where the band's true strengths may lie.

YouTube is the new rock hit radio, and Running Around is the band's 'hit' at this point, and it's immediately apparent why. This is just cool, cool rock and roll. It's a fast paced rocker that will have you singing along on the first go 'round.

If Steve Harris had hired an organ player instead of a second guitarist, the album's title track, Broken Uncle's Inn would have been perfect for Iron Maiden's first album. Sophisticated changes and another strong melody - these guys do some great vocal work, and they make it sound easy and natural every time. A young band with great songwriting chops, what's not to like?

Heaven With No Stars is another fabulous showcase for keyboardist Alssandro Duo', as well as a masterful vocal performance by Di Marco, who shows on this piano based ballad that he has skills that extend beyond big rock vocalizing - much of this tune is reminiscent of early David Bowie, no small compliment. The arrangement is sensational in it's scope and it also features a lovely acoustic guitar solo by Bizzarri. Voodoo Highway is much more than just an exceptional crotch rock ensemble, they have a great many tricks up their sleeves, and this bodes very well for their future.

A seriously slamming swing between the bass and drums opens up Gasoline Woman, and it's back to the rock - and yet another new flavor. This is big and expansive riffing, with Di Marco wailing in the upper register of his range. Slick production lifts this up, and the band keeps the groove rolling and the melodies flowing. They have a certain style, yet they never get mired in it, and there is much to differentiate the tunes. Here we see Duo' throwing down an beautiful solo that establishes his place amongst the Aireys, and the Lords of the world. Great work by the whole band - another mind blower which will be something to see on stage in a live setting.

In Fact It's The Worst brings the album full circle, and they're back in Blackmore territory, be it DP or Rainbow. A very strong Strat/Marshall riff carries this, and the entire band is in full, open throttle mode as they ride out one of the finest debut long players that it has been my pleasure to hear for some time.

While not as virtuosic as their predecessors perhaps, these guy can play and sing their collective asses off. This record is all keeper, and no filler - I couldn't be more thrilled by Italy's latest export - a brilliant first showing.

Hey America - buy this record, so we can get this bunch over here for some shows this year. We need all the great hard rock we can get!

My thanks to Axel Wiesenauer - Rock n' Growl Management and Promotion, all of the members Voodoo Highway.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa - Don't Explain - Instant Classic

Kevin Shirley has become the Alchemist of Rock and Roll. His not so secret ingredient is super-guitarist Joe Bonamassa, and Shirley has once again created magic by combining the talents of his ace in the hole, blues rock superstar with chanteuse Beth Hart to make Don't Explain, the best old school rhythm & blues record to see the light of day in decades.

The death of the record business has created one thing that is wonderful, and that is the possibility of established acts combining to make great music without the encumbrances that kept artists from working together at will for so many years. This has availed Joe Bonamassa, a solo superstar in his own right, to partner up first with the legendary Voice of Rock, Glenn Hughes to form Black Country Communion in 2010, and now to join forces with Beth Hart to record Don't Explain, an outstanding set of re-worked R&B classics. These synergistic combinations are a tremendous boon to artists and audiences alike.

In early 2010, the guitarist caught a Beth Hart show in London. "It was killer," says Bonamassa - and suggested they do a project together. 

Joe continues, "I was up late one night, I couldn't sleep.  I was playing songs on my iPod from the reissue of The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, which included all the opening acts from that Stones show," he recalls. "As soon as the Ike & Tina Turner tracks came on, I just said out loud, 'Beth Hart.'  I emailed Kevin, saying, 'Let's do a soul covers record with Beth,' and he replied back, 'Actually, that's a great idea.'"

Thankfully the creative team of producer Shirley, Hart, and Bonamassa selected a set of standards, but avoided the obvious maneuver of choosing lowest common denominator super hits, and went with mostly deep catalog classics by stalwarts such as Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Bill Withers, and Melody Gardot.

Beth Hart is no shrinking violet - she manages to own these tunes with a sultry style that harkens to a great many soul divas, but her stamp is indelible. One problem I always had with most soul records was the fact that once you got past the hits, there often was little left to excite the listener. This bunch has avoided that brilliantly, and the album has no filler, it's all prime cuts, and Hart turns in incredible performances from beginning to end.

Joe Bonamassa continues an impressive winning streak - he has recorded and toured relentlessly over the last few years, and has not made a single misstep. In fact, he keeps getting better. His playing keeps improving with every project, every road trip. This is fairly uncommon - historically, most guitar slingers have seen decreased creativity with an increased workload. This may be due to the fact that Bonamassa plays a pretty clean game, with none of the typical excesses that have traditionally been stumbling blocks for so many great players. Joe seems to be oblivious to any pressures (another benefit of largely running his own show?), and just keeps delivering the goods. His phrasing, tone, and note choices are sublime across the whole of this record, from wobbly and dark tremolo'd arpeggios to passionate single string solos - he is on it.

As a guitar enthusiast, I was always a bit disappointed by the lack of six string excitement in the rhythm & blues field (especially on records by female singers) - rest assured that this is the record we always wanted to hear coming out of the American South, one filled to the brim with the influence of Gibson and Fender. One listen to Bill Wither's For My Friends and you'll be convinced. Bonamassa infuses the tune with a thick, clavinet tinged bit of riffery that lands the smooth California soul somewhere in the realm of Kossoff, Rodgers, and Free. Hart throws in loads of non-lyrical bits and pieces throughout the tune that will have fans of great singer/shouters smiling from ear to ear.

Sinners Prayer gets quite an update - the original take, by Ray Charles and BB King, is driven by Charles' piano, with King supplying largely stock licks. Bonamassa wisely chose a different route by introducing a slide guitar signature lick that wraps the listener engagingly around Hart's plea for compassion and forgiveness. As always, Bonamassa's long standing studio band of bassist Carmine Rojas, drummer Anton Fig, keyboardist Arlan Scheirbaum, and multi-instrumentalist Blondie Chaplin is rock solid, supplying a perfect platform from which to launch the incendiary performances of the two main attractions.

Tom Waits has a long history of supplying amazing songs for singers brave enough to tackle his challenging prose and idiosyncratic melodies, and Chocolate Jesus gets the full treatment as Hart and Bonamassa take it down to bourbon town with a jazzy beat and some cinematic underpinnings from the band. Bonamassa's tone is drenched in a damp bit of pitch shifted reverberation - just right for the strangeness required from Mr. Waits tune. Hart reaches deep here and pushes her vocals with a sophisticated, thick vibrato and some very earthy belting. Great phrasing from the singer on this one.

Covering Melody Gardot is a pretty ballsy act for a female singer, and Beth Hart knocks Your Heart Is As Black As Night out of the park by taking it down a path that suggests she's spent some time with a Nina Simone record, or two. Producer Shirley does a great job on this with some great subtle strings that peak around corners and wrap themselves around the arrangement. Bonamassa solos with tone, taste and sweet, sweet melody. It gets not much tastier than this, really.

Don't Explain is a Billie Holiday classic that has Hart respectfully matching the tone of the Queen of the Blues, but with a warmer, slightly less reedy tone. The arrangement is not quite as complex as on the original, but you get the bonus of Bonamassa sounding a bit like Jeff Beck blowing a sax. The six stringer evokes just the right tone on everything here, never being obtrusive, but filling his slots with sublime playing, and consistently keeping things interesting with his choices of axes, and effects.

I thought I'd rather go deaf than hear yet another version of Etta James' I'd Rather Go Blind, but again I'm pleasantly surprised to find that Shirley's inspired pairing comes through with a tasteful reading that reminds exactly why we have always loved this number. Bassist Carmine Rojas shines on this number, reminding me of the legendary Jerry Jemmott - if you're unaware, look him up. Jemmott played with most of the artists being covered here, and Rojas's tasty playing tips the hat to the fellow known as 'The Groovemaster.'

Something's Got A Hold On Me covers the rougher side of Etta James, and this one jumps and swings. A very different groove - this is has a bounce that suggest Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. This one will get you moving and breaking out your old Stax box sets for sure.

Prepare to lose your heart to Beth Hart when you hear her treatment of I'll Take Care Of You, a song the singer says originally had her scrambling to find the pocket:

“At first, I couldn’t find the pocket, anyplace to rest my voice. The more I listened, though, I really liked how the song’s got a dual personality, a blend of confidence and broken spirit,” she says. “I loved the humanness of it, how you can experience opposite feelings at the same time. And the melody is gorgeous.”

Indeed it is, and when Hart finally found her groove, she managed to transcend any previously recorded version of this spiritual tale of promise and pain. Her melodic healing will have you feeling better in no time, and you'll be glad she found the heart of this great song. Her vocal chops are astounding, but her delivery is so natural and unforced that only occasionally will you realize the depth of her incredible skills. Just when you think it's over, Anton Fig unleashes a tremendous bit of stick work that rings in Bonamassa's best solo on the record, one that sees the ghost of Gary Moore smiling with love in the shadows.

Someone finally had the good sense to throw a microphone in front of Joe Bonamassa for a treatment of Delaney & Bonnie's Well, Well. The last few seasons has seen Bonamassa go from being a passable blues belter to being a world class singer. I can't give the guy too much credit here. How often does anyone become a great vocalist? It's a rarity, I can tell you that much, and Bonamassa has put in the work and developed his voice to become as impressive as his massive guitar skills.

The pair end the album with a soulful take on Aretha Franklin's Ain't No Way, and it is a lovely way to ring out a wonderful record. A sensitive rendering that has Joe B supplying some very tasteful swells, and bends that harken back to Santos & Johnny's Sleep Walk via Jeff Beck. He plays some astoundingly cool and subtle licks under, over, and around Hart's beautiful vocal. A truly inspired finish.

Soul records for me always suffered from a certain few things, as I stated earlier - generally not enough guitar fire power, and an absence of depth of material. Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, along with Kevin Shirley and their powerful backing band have done an amazing job of delivering a truly stunning set of soul classics with all the emotion, passion, and fiery performances anyone could ask for. Did I mention that they recorded this in four days? Amazing.