Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Steve Lukather: Transition - Welcome To The Second Half

Transition is Steve Lukather's eighth solo record, and it is a great look at where he is today - the album is full of melodic pop, tons of great guitar, some fusion-esque interludes, but more than anything it's his singing that sells these songs - he's written some lyrics that are straight from the heart, and the record is, as he told me, 'Very organic.' If this is the opening salvo to the second half of his life, the 'transition' into the next chapter, it's a helluva successful first step.

The first half was quite the adventure. Steve Lukather has lived the American Dream writ large across the cosmos. He's played countless sessions on countless albums, topped the charts and sold out arenas for decades with his world class outfit Toto, gotten to play with George, Paul, and Ringo - whose last names I needn't mention, and has more than a few solo records under his belt.

Working side by side with producer, and co-writer C. J. Vanston, Lukather can always be counted on to deliver a pristine package when it comes to sounds, but here we get more than mere mastery of the form - we get an album full of songs in which he has invested heart and soul. He's joined by some of the best players in the world, choosing the right guys (or gals) for each tune - names like Leland Sklaar, Tal Wilkenfield, Nathan East, Gregg Bissonette, Fee Waybill, Phil Collen, and others show up to help with the painting of this latest masterwork. But, make no mistake - this is Lukather's moment to shine, and shine he does.

Judgement Day is nearly eight minutes long, and it never for a second feels like a second too long. Gorgeous sophisticated pop in the vein of the glory days of Steely Dan, but this rocks, too. The cleanly plucked chords that swell so spectacularly under the verses as Lukather displays some very nice vocal chops soon give way to a brief bit of sultry slide guitar that announces the big rock chorus - yeah, this has all the right moves, and we've just begun. Vanston throws in a synth interlude that somehow combines Toto with Brian Wilson, and then we're treated with the first brilliant guitar solo of many. It's not chop heavy, but don't think that all those nights on the road with Satch and Vai didn't rub off just a bit. There's another tasty bunch of string bending as the ride out builds, and some more six string brilliance on the tag. A fantastic beginning.

The Tubes were one of America's greatest rock acts of the '70s and '80s, and when they reached out for some assistance from the Toto bunch, they finally got the chart success they so deserved. Tube founder and visionary Fee Waybill (who's been way too absent from the scene of late) lends his wit and wisdom to the cause with some lyrical assistance on Creep Motel, and it makes me smile. This is the blues turned upside down and inside out, not unlike the sadly unsung Was (Not Was)'s twisted take on Motown soul (if you're not hip, go back in time and fix this - you won't be sorry). The ghost of early Steely Dan can be heard lurking around in there, as well.

Lukather reaches deep into his soul and pulls out Once Again, his reflective look at the end of his marriage. This is classic Southern California song craft, a piano ballad that echoes the melodic memories of Jackson Browne, Eagles, and a bit of Petty in places. When the rhythm section of Renee Jones, Toss Panos, and Lenny Castro arrive they move things along on a magic carpet of timekeeping and melody. I'd like this song even more if it didn't so remind me how hard it is to miss someone you love. This is a really great vocal performance.

Right The Wrong is perfect pop - starting with Trev Lukather's rubber band mutola guitar intro, and Chili Pepper Chad Smith's snap to attention snare work, this one can't go wrong. Lukather is a master of big chorus pop, and this might be as majestic a chorus as we get in 2013. Infectious in the extreme. Richard Page supplies some great close harmonies, and this is a hit. A brief musical interlude that reminds us that Lukather did at one time work with Sir Paul prefaces another all too brief guitar solo, then it's big arena all the way out. Goddamned glorious, I tell you what. This is one of those songs that's worth whatever the record costs, so just buy it.

Transition is wickedly cool, mostly instrumental tune that travels over a lot of territory, and it's only because you've got the world's best players behind the wheel that the wheels never come off. Tal Wilkenfield's bass line is subsonic beauty, and Steve Weingart's keyboards are amazing. Beckian Floydisms anyone?

Lukather can make any song sound good - so good that sometimes it's easy to forget just how much talent goes into making something sound so easy. Last Man Standing is one of those tunes. It comes across as another cool pop nugget of gold, but then there's an instrumental bridge that makes its way across the desert in search of the stars on a cloudless night. A nice, subtle solo makes its point, then Luke and company ride the chorus into the sunset. There is indeed, something to be said for being the last man standing - after years and years of excess and apologies, redemption is a new dawn. If you hear a little Joe Walsh in this, you're right - it is a bit of a head nodding tribute, especially those chunky chords played on Joe Bonamassa's old Les Paul.

The travelogue continues as things keep getting brighter - not just metaphorically, but also melodically. This is a declaration of a need for solidarity among those who still remember common sense.  Do I Stand Alone? We hope not.

Rest Of The World is a non-original number, but it fits with what Lukather has written very well. The guitars are a little unlike what we're used to hearing from him, sounding like they've been steeped in Stax soul - still there's some familiar melodic single string fills, that remind us who's playing - to be honest, the guy can play anything, and this is just more proof. Nathan East is easily identifiable with his five string rumbling, and his melodic sensibility in place.

Closing out the album, Lukather chooses a melody written by another denizen of Hollywood, one Charlie Chaplin. Smile - though your heart is aching. Lukather has done a lot of that, and this selection is to the memory of his mother who died as Luke was going through the tribulations of getting sober, divorce, the sickness and death of friends, and the struggle of the trip from the dark into the light. A Transition, all right, and if Steve Lukather continues on the path he's on, the second half is going to be even more glorious than the first. - great samples from the album

My two part interview with Steve: - Part I - Part II

You can buy the album here:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dave Kilminster: From Inside "The Wall" - "Whatever I Play, I Inject My Heart And Soul Into It" (Part II)

We left off yesterday, having covered what it was like for Dave Kilminster to learn, audition for, and perform The Wall, and some very informative info on his guitars and amps. Today, we'll pick it back up and cover Dave's plans for 2013 - his new solo record, his work with Guthrie Govan and Murray Hockridge, more gear talk, then we'll wrap it up with some comments on Scarlet - The Director's Cut, and a special appearance by Mr. Jimmy Page.

After discussing Guthrie Govan's involvement with Dave's gear selections, I wondered if there were plans for the two to elaborate on their collaborations sometime in 2013 - I commented to Dave that when I hear the duo play together, I'm convinced it's the work of a two-headed monster with four hands. I asked how long it took for them to gel as a guitar team:

Dave Kilminster: "Hahaha, it was actually instant! It really was....I think the secret, not that there's any kind of secret, but we're both self-taught  - we play by ear, and we both listen. That's the most important thing when you're playing together is listening to the guy you're playing with, and actually responding to that. 
"We'd penciled in doing an album together at the end of this year (2012), and then he got busy doing some stuff with The Aristocrats, and I've been busy writing for my new album, which actually, I was due to start recording last week. I was booked into the studio on the 10th of December to start on the follow-up to Scarlet, and I had to cancel that due to the 12-12-12 concert. 
"So, I'm hoping to do that at the beginning of the year and Guthrie's still out with The Aristocrats. We're now kind of penciling in the end of 2013, when I've finished the next leg of The Wall tour, which should be around September, and and hopefully he won't be too busy, because I know he's going out with Steve Wilson, as well! 
"Schedules....Oh, it's a nightmare (laughter)! It took me so much to get the studio, the engineer, and Pete Riley (drums) and Phil Williams (bass), all available to start recording last week. It's a bit gutting! (more laughter)"

Sticking with this direction, I asked Dave what the new record held in store:

Kilminster: "That's a very good question! I think after doing Scarlet, I have a much better idea of the direction in my head. The only problem with Scarlet was that it was written over such a long period of time - there were some old things hanging around for a bit, and I want this new effort to be a little bit more cohesive. I wrote all of the tunes for the new record in August - I wrote probably fifteen, or sixteen tunes, it was crazy, I just could not stop writing! 
"I tried a slightly different approach to the writing which I've never done before, and everything seems to have a bit more of a....if you could imagine Led Zeppelin carrying on. 
"Some of it may sound a little folky - when people think of Zeppelin, they automatically think of like when bands copied Led Zeppelin with the big drums, and the heavy riffs, but there's so much more to that band, obviously! So, that's kind of where it's going, if it was in any direction, which is maybe a bit of a combination between Zeppelin and Jeff Buckley."

Upon hearing that the new record may have softer moments, and folky interludes, I couldn't but wonder if Dave would be utilizing the Godin nylon stringed guitars he's put to such great use with The Wall:

Kilminster: "Oh sure! I have a fretless classical of their's that I'm dying to record with, they make amazing stuff. 
"In fact, when I was getting ready for The Wall, I thought, 'There's classical guitars on this, oh good!" Since I'd never heard the record before and I was actually playing at a music fair, in Italy again, and I just decided to wander around and see what was available. I picked up this Godin classical guitar and it felt great - and it sounded great! I thought, 'These guys really know what they're doing! 
"I've barely scratched the surface with these classical guitars, as it were, and as you probably know they have a MIDI output - yeah, I can't wait to see them. 
"I'm considering going to NAMM (a semi-annual gathering of musical instrument makers in America), I haven't been to NAMM for years, and I'm thinking of going in January, so that's a great idea - if I make it, I'll definitely look them up!"

Getting back to his plans for 2013 - having loved Scarlet, and being quite anxious about the new solo record, I asked if there were any hope for solo Kilminster shows this year:

Kilminster: "Again, that depends on my schedule. I'm going to be doing my album for the first few months of 2013, and there's a good chance I'll be going out in Europe with this amazing singer/songwriter named Murray Hockridge - we've done quite a lot of work together with just acoustic guitars and two voices. 
"We did an album together, which is on iTunes now, it's called, Closer To Earth, which is just a bunch of cover tunes we decided to mess around with. We did a gig in Rome - in a museum, of all places, a couple of weeks ago and there was a promoter in the crowd who thought it sounded fantastic, who is now booking a tour! I think in May. 
"I'm back out with Roger finishing The Wall tour, going until September, and then recording with Guthrie - then that might be the time to go out and do some solo stuff. It depends a little bit on the reaction to the new album - if it's as good as your reaction to Scarlet then we definitely need to get out there!"

Indeed, I have great love for Scarlet - it's an exceptional album that sees Dave Kilminster writing the songs, singing, playing great guitars all over it. I comment that it appears to me that when it comes to his own music, Dave may have little option but to follow the muse inside his head - and for that the world should be most grateful:

Kilminster: "Absolutely my pleasure! I grew up listening to music. I grew up - I didn't pick up a guitar to sound like any guitarist, I was actually playing piano at the time. I would go to school and play,and then I would go to my grandmother's house on the weekend and I'd be playing, then I'd get home and get very frustrated that we didn't have a piano. 
"I could just hear all these tunes in my head, so I ended up getting a guitar just to make music! It wasn't to play solos, or to do any of that stuff. I kind of developed a certain amount of technique just to play what I could hear in my head, which is now how it has to be! 
"It's just completely me, and if I'd recorded it on a different day then there'd be different tunes, and different influences. I guess it's all going to sound like me in some way!"

Speaking of Scarlet, I asked about the album's title - why Scarlet?:

Kilminster: "Scarlet was's just a word that I find very provocative. I enjoy messing around with words - it reminded me of all kinds of things....Sherlock Holmes - I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, so A Study In Scarlet (the novel in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the character of Sherlock Holmes) was what I originally envisioned the album being called. 
"There's a certain element of that in there, and there's Scarlet O'Hara from Gone With The Wind, as well. There's just something about the word - also, red is a very sexy color. I think I read once that, a typical man's response to a woman wearing red was that she was....that she was looking for....well, to have some fun. It just seemed to make perfect sense! 
"There were also a couple of little coincidences that happened, as well - I had done one of my little acoustic shows, and I was just packing up and the promoter comes over to me, and he says, 'Oh - Jimmy Page is in the audience, and he'd like to have a word.' 
"I said, 'Yeah of course he is!' I didn't believe him at all - and sure enough, I go over, and Jimmy Page is just standing there. 
"I'd played my version of The Rain Song, which he said he absolutely loved, and we also talked about Jeff Buckley, as I had done a few of his tunes. Then he mentioned is daughter, who's called Scarlet! And I thought, you know, all these little coincidences - I don't think they are."

To wrap things up, I ask Dave if there's anything else going on in his world in 2013 that we've missed, or he'd like to mention:

"Kilminster: "I think it may well be busy enough at the moment! I've spent too many years helping other people's careers! 
"I'll make sure we stay in contact, I really want you to hear this new record, and as I told you before, I want to be number one in your year's best list next year!"

I have no question that, as usual, Dave Kilminster will deliver on his promises. At any rate, I'll look forward to chatting with him again - it's rare, as I stated earlier, to come across anyone so friendly, charming, and generous with their time and energy. Happy 2013, Dave.

Dave Kilminster: From Inside 'The Wall' - "Whatever I Play, I Inject My Heart And Soul Into It" (Part I)

Dave Kilminster is obviously a musician of many gifts - while known to millions as the guy on top of Roger Waters's The Wall recreating some of history's greatest guitar solos, he's also a great songwriter, singer, and record maker in his own right.

After years of, 'Helping others succeed in their careers,' Dave is currently recording a new solo record following the re-release of Scarlet - The Director's Cut, his first solo outing. Scarlet made it on to my 'Top 12 For 2012,' and it would appear that this is but the beginning for Kilminster - in addition to a new solo record, he's also hoping to see a long awaited collaboration with Guthrie Govan later in the year. That, along with more shows atop The Wall, and a European tour with Murray Hockridge (with whom Kilminster recorded the excellent acoustic covers CD, Closer To Earth in 2011) should ensure the world sees no shortage of Dave Kilminster in 2013.

I caught up with Dave just days after his grand finale for 2012, a great performance with Waters at the 12-12-12 Concert For Sandy Relief (album now available on iTunes), and we covered a tremendous amount of ground - I've never laughed so much through an interview, we had a great chat and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Dave Kilminster: "Ah Tony! How the devil are you? I just realized that you're the Tony that did that amazing review, aren't you? It was the first one Billy James sent me, and I looked at that and thought, 'Wow, if the rest are even a quarter of that, I'm going to be OK!"

Keeping with the jovial theme of mutual admiration, I felt compelled to tell Dave that I had spoken to Steve Lukather just the day before, and the world's most recorded guitarist had raved about his love for Dave's playing:

Kilminster: "Wow. Oh my God! That's just....I' doesn't happen very often, but I'm totally speechless. That is totally amazing (You must understand - Lukather is considered by Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, and countless other pros as 'the guitarists' guitarist'). 
"I was quite disappointed, actually, I heard that when we played the Coliseum in LA earlier this year, someone said, 'Steve Lukather is backstage,' - I was hoping to catch up with him after the show, and I couldn't find him, so we've never met, but that, that's amazing! Lucky, I'm sitting down at the moment, thank you so much for passing that along! I'll have to drop him a note, I feel very honored!"

It's beyond refreshing to hear anyone speak with such joy and humility, especially when the person gifting the world with their graciousness just climbed off stage after performing for two billion viewers. I asked Dave how he felt about the 12-12-12 benefit concert:

Kilminster: (chuckling) "I was pretty scared, actually! When I first read on the website that it was going to be broadcast to over a billion people, I just sat there in a state of shock for a little while. 
"As we got closer and we rehearsed, it was sounding really good - especially after we sound checked that afternoon. Everything just felt really nice, really comfortable, and it wasn't as cold as I'd remembered it being previously, because it is a hockey arena, and sometimes it gets a bit chilly in there, which is not great for the hands. But we did soundcheck, and I thought, 'This is going to be alright!' The thing to do, obviously, is to just focus on what you're going to do, and you can't think about other things." 
"I was happy, relieved, whatever - there were a couple of little moments....I'm a perfectionist, so there's a couple of moments where there were slightly sharp bends, and that was just way too much adrenalin! I was just happy to be involved - for such a great cause, too! To be on the same stage with all those amazing musicians, and bands, and such. Yeah, it was a perfect way to end the year, really!"

Dave Kilminster is a very unique musician - gifted with an almost absurd amount of expression in his own music and playing, he's also able to mimic nearly exactly the performances of others, perhaps given to his many years as one of Britain's premier guitar instructors, perhaps given to the truth that the man is simply - a true musician. I wondered how he's approached channeling the work of one of rock's most iconic soloists, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour:

Kilminster: "I guess I'm just treating it, and Roger treats the Pink Floyd albums in the same way, as a classical piece. Kind of like a classical musician, I'm approaching the music as - that's what's been written, so that's what I'm going to have to reproduce. 
"Whatever I play, I inject my heart and soul into it. So it still sounds a bit like me, I suppose, but really I'm just trying to keep Roger happy, trying to keep the Pink Floyd fans happy, because that's what they want to hear, really. That's the music they grew up listening to, and there's the solos - they all know them note for note. 
"I just try to be as respectful as possible to the original recordings. With any music I play, really, it's the music - you don't let things like ego get in the way. I just try to get as close to the original parts as possible."

Playing The Wall every night to a stadium full of Floyd devotees is certainly, a huge and daunting task, but what about learning the album, and auditioning for the position? Even though Dave had been in Waters's touring band, and the Dark Side Of The Moon tour, he still had to audition for The Wall band - and he had never heard the record!:

Kilminster: "Yeah, actually, I had never heard the album before! So, the first thing I did was to go out and buy a copy (insert big laugh)! I just kind of played it in the car for a few days before I picked up a guitar - I thought I'd rather get used to the tunes as tunes. I wanted to know the structures before I even started working out keys, or what effects are being used. 
"Knowing how Roger likes to sort of throw things at you at the last minute, I thought, 'You know, I'm going to be prepared for this album - I'm going to work out every single guitar part, and so I did. I transcribed every guitar part on the album, and I also wrote out all the lyrics in case I needed to sing anything. I approached everything so that when we got together for the rehearsals, I felt pretty confident, like I was ready for anything he'd throw at me. And, one of the first things he said, as we started going through Mother, he said, 'Um..., Dave, can you play bass on this one? (More laughter) 
"It just goes to show, you can never be too prepared! Well, I obviously hadn't written out the bass lines, so.... I love working with Roger, he's such a perfectionist, such an amazing arranger, and he finds the people to do the right things - it was a real honor to go out and reproduce this album. 
"I'd worked with him before on the Dark Side Of The Moon tour, and this was a fairly familiar scenario. I had to work out all the guitar parts because I didn't know what would be asked of me. I thought, rather than to try and memorize everything, I'd just write everything out, and then during rehearsals I could just pull out the pieces of paper that I'd need to play. I hate reading music - I can do it, but I dislike it. I don't think it has anything to do with playing music. I think that if you're going to play music, it has to come from inside, and reading music is coming from outside."

If you've heard Dave Kilminster masterfully replicating The Wall, you've no doubt been amazed by just how faithfully he recreates history, but you may be even more amazed to find out that in no way, shape, or form does Dave attempt to clone Gilmour's gear:

Kilminster: "That was the other thing. I didn't want....I'm not necessarily overly fond of some of the overdrive sounds on that album! It's just a personal thing. I thought that rather than getting the same sounds using Big Muffs and Electric Mistresses and all that antiquated stuff, I thought that if I just played the exact same lines as the record with the exact same phrasing, then I hoped that would be close enough, because I have my own sound. 
"The real sound comes from the fingers, anyway, but I just thought I'd see how much I could get away with without making it sound like, uh, Van Halen does Pink Floyd, or something! I used my own tone and I tried that, and nobody said anything, so I thought, well OK, I'm going to get away with this. I don't like too much compression on the overdrive, and I don't like the fuzziness - I guess my tone is a little cleaner in places."

Speaking of the superb tones he gets with Waters, I asked Dave about his use of Brunetti amplifiers. Most readers may not have even heard of Brunetti, but I've a feeling that is soon to change. Kilminster uses a pair of Brunetti Mercury EL34 models - it seems the toughest thing about these amazing amps is how to further evolve them. I asked how Dave found these toneful beasts:

Kilminster: "Ha! That's a good question! I was just about to do a tour of Italy with my good friend Guthrie Govan, and we were trying to contact Paul Cornford, to find out whether he had any of his Cornford amps over in Italy - those are the amps I used on the previous tour. Guthrie tried sending him a few e-mails, and couldn't seem to connect with him, and we were getting very close to the tour starting. 
"Then one day, Guthrie says, 'You know, I did a clinic over in Italy recently and they had this Brunetti amp which sounded great, maybe we should contact them.' So we called them up, and they said, 'Yeah, sure, we can lend you some amps for the tour.' 
"As soon as I plugged into this little combo that they had lent me, I knew that was the amp I wanted to use on the tour. It was the first time I ever found an amp that had an amazing clean sound and an amazing overdrive sound. If you want a clean sound, you'd generally go with something like a Fender, and for a great overdrive sound you get a Marshall, but I'd never found an amplifier that did both of these things really well, and this one did! I was just astonished! 
"Before The Wall tour, I was considering going the other way - the Eric Johnson sort of way, where you get two, or three amps, which I really didn't want to do. But then I discovered the Brunetti amps and they're incredible, just absolutely incredible."

Using two fifty watt amps for a tour of this size, you might well assume that Dave's cranking them to ten, but in fact, he can't. Utilizing Marco Brunetti's design capabilities, he's able to run the amps at just twenty watts each, and still have loads of gas in the tank. I asked Dave if he was really running the amps at twenty watts a piece:

Kilminster: "Yeah, that's right! I've got the two amps in stereo running twenty watts each, but they're up less than half. I think if they were up next to a hundred watt Marshall, you wouldn't be able to hear the Marshall at all. 
"In fact, Marco just sent me an e-mail a couple of weeks ago - he said, 'I really want to do a signature model for you.' Yeah, but the problem is.... He said, 'What would you improve on it?' and I said, 'I don't know, it's pretty much perfect!' I think I'm going to have to give it some pretty serious thought to come up with something (more laughter). 
"It was such a great discovery for me, Marco is an amazing guy, and I see that perfectionist attitude in what he does, it's kind of the same as what I try to do, I try to do perfectly - so yeah, we get on really well."

Another key ingredient in the Kilminster arsenal is his custom Suhr Guitar. The guitar is visibly identifiable due to the elaborate 'Rose' graphics, conceived by Ann-Marie Helder - she also researched and composed the Egyptian hieroglyphics seen on the back of the guitar's body. Using pyrographic tools, Helder burnt both designs into the guitar. Turns out the guitar itself is a design of Dave's that was built to spec by Suhr:

Kilminster: "Guthrie was using one of their guitars and I was looking for someone to build me a Telecaster style guitar, but with a kind of Strat style pickup configuration and tremolo. He said, "You should check out Suhr, they make really good stuff, So I told them exactly what I wanted and the Rose guitar, that was the first thing they ever made for me. It's still my favorite guitar, probably the best sounding guitar I have at the moment.  
"The pickups are bolted straight into the body, that's sort of Eddie Van Halen's fault, I'm afraid! I've always admired Eddie for putting amazing sounding guitars together. I just borrowed one, or two things - I thought, yeah, screwing the pickup into the wood, that makes complete sense, and the absence of finish makes a huge difference as well. I've had guitars with even a little bit of finish, and it affects the tone.  
"Suhr is actually making me another guitar which is like a direct replacement for the Rose guitar. I said to leave the body completely natural - I know it's going to get dents, and chips, but at the end of the day, I want it to play music."
This interview would be great if it stopped right here, but to be honest, we're only half way done. Please join us for Part II, in which we'll cover what Dave is going to be up to in 2013, and this includes much more on his work with Guthrie Govan, Roger Waters's The Wall, Scarlet - The Director's Cut, his exciting new solo project, and a wonderful anecdote concerning one Jimmy Page.

Link to part II of this interview

Friday, January 11, 2013

Sweet: Desolation Boulevard Revisited - Andy Scott Delivers The Goods

"Without Sweet there would not be a KISS" - Gene Simmons 
"Motley Crue wanted to be Sweet." - Nikki Sixx 
"Sweet are the band that I wish I had been in." - Joe Elliott (Def Leppard)
I leapt without looking, and I wondered just what I had done. It's dangerous to look back - sometimes going back in time just can't, and perhaps shouldn't be done. However, when you're looking over your shoulder and the cliff is in your rear view, it's better to get on with it.

The minute I saw that Sweet had re-recorded their 1973 classic album, Desolation Boulevard, I instantly shot off an e-mail to their American publicist and begged a listen. The original album didn't really make it to America until 1975, when Ballroom Blitz became a runaway best selling single, but when it did it created a huge impression on my young brain. Huge hooks, in your face production, Brian Connolly's broken glass edged banshee wailing, a drummer who studied on the Moon, gobs of glorious high pitched background vocals, but more than anything it was the savage yet melodic guitars of Andy Scott that grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go. His playing was perfect - he never played above his audience, and he always played perfectly for the songs.

So almost immediately after I had sent my e-mail, I wondered to myself, 'What on earth are you doing?'

I wasn't even sure which Sweet this was referring to - there seems to be Andy Scott's Sweet, and there is also original bassist Steve Priest's Sweet. Evidently Priest's gang spends their time in the US and Canada, and Andy Scott's bunch has Europe, the UK, and Australia, amongst others. I also knew that Sweet had enough lineup changes over the years to humble Ritchie Blackmore (Wikipedia lists almost 40 different lineups). Honestly, I hadn't listened to any of the band's material in ages - I only truly knew them for one near perfect album, Desolation Boulevard. Incidently, this is Andy Scott's Sweet, and they are just that.

Generally speaking, I don't much listen to music I don't adore, let alone write about it, so what was I going to do if this one failed to pass muster - not only would I look silly for so enthusiastically requesting something horrible, I would also spoil all those incredible youthful memories. If you had told me at that point that the new record would make me smile as much as the original, I would have given you a glance that suggested you were in possession of five eyes.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when the record blew me away.

I've not been a fan of the efforts I've heard in the past when an act attempted to re-record a classic album - I've yet to hear one that matched, let alone superseded the original. While I'll not go so far as to say Sweet has topped their own classic, I will say that recreating a classic album in a live setting is a brilliant alternative, and that the band has not only exceeded my expectations, they've made a great live record.

Sweet F. A. comes out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and I'm reminded why the original instantly got my attention and held it rapt. It sounds like a street fight between Queen and The Who - Andy Scott is as aggro as ever, and when he switches between the intro's power chords and his chicken scratch rhythms I'm hooked all over again. Pete Lincoln - no wonder they call him, "The Human Jukebox." He handles Connolly's original vocal lines with respect and gusto. This guy brings it - and the whole lot contribute mightily on the higher than the sky choral interlude. Bruce Bisland who has beshed the skins for such Brit-rock stalwarts as Paul Di'Anno, Gary Barden, Brian Robertson, and Doogie White, batters his kit admirably - It sounds as if any minute he'll project himself off his kit, he's a fiery bastard, I tell ya. Tony O'Hora is back on guitars, keys, and vocals, and he's perfect in his role - and it sounds like an amazingly difficult gig with all the layers involved - they don't cut any corners. By the end of the tune, I'm pretty convinced that this will be a great ride.

I keep toggling back and forth, to and fro between the original album, and this live show, and I've got two things to say - I never got to see the original band, so if you said this is the same band, I wouldn't doubt it; also, I've heard tracks from the original band's live shows, and this doesn't suffer in the comparison - the technological advances in live sound management certainly aid, but the band's performance is razor sharp. Heartbreak Today finds Lincoln sounding like a young Roger Daltrey - he nails the notes, and fans of Connolly have naught to complain about this - this is fantastic rock, and when Scott and O'Hora kick in the harmony guitars, it's blissful.

I've no idea why Sweet never made a bigger splash in the States. Maybe they just didn't have an image that sat well with rednecks, and cowboys. This bunch was pure glam, and glitz - The Six Teens will thrill anyone who cared in the least for Queen, and Andy Scott's incredibly tasteful and melodic guar work on this live recording reminds that it was the US who missed out. This is fucking beautiful - it rocks, it's pretty, and it lets me know I was right when I was shaking my head wondering why they weren't headlining American tours in arenas.

Part of the beauty of the version of Desolation Boulevard that got released in America was that it contained many tracks from the UK release, Sweet Fanny Adams, an album produced by Phil Wainman and the band. The band showed a brawnier, more intelligent view of hard rock as seen through the eyes of guitarist Andy Scott, and the glam pop of Chinn and Chapman is a bit less of a factor - take the tune Restless - this tune didn't make it onto the American release of DB, but it is nothing to do with glam, or pop. There's some gritty blues rock that evokes Bad Company (years before that band existed, hmm....), some crazy cool cocktail jazz piano, and a beautifully ripping extended guitar solo from Scott.

No You Don't is straight up proto-glam metal - I just know Randy Rhoads had to love this - it sounds like the very template of Blizzard Of Ozz. No self respecting lover of hard rock could do anything but love this - when the acoustic guitar underpins Scott's rugged chugging it's rock guitar bliss. Did Townshend hear this when he settled in to write Quadrophenia? Sure he did. The synths, acoustic guitars, and the bluster all point the way - sure, Sweet idolized The Who, but I'm guessing the road may well have ran both ways.

Scott takes over lead vocals for Into The Night, and it's another brilliant piece of melodic metal. This is what a riff is supposed to sound like. Huge rock never sounded better, and when the guitars go off on a harmony tangent, again I'm completely blissed out. These guy have done a magnificent job here. You don't know the guitar work of Andy Scott? Goddamn that's a shame. Blackmore loved the guy.

AC/DC is perhaps Sweet's most covered tune with Joan Jett and Vince Neil being amongst the acts that have realized this early tome to bi-curiousity for girls. It's a great chunk of fun filled rock, and Scott tosses in a blazing slide solo that rocks, rocks, and rocks some more. Even if you didn't know Sweet in the '70s, you can bet most of the hard rock idols of the '80s had it covered.

Sweet also threw out some of the coolest synth fueled singles of the '70s, and I think for me, Fox On The Run was maybe my introduction to loud guitars being mashed up with silky synth runs. This bunch nails it all - the huge background vocals, the pounding beat, and again, Pete Lincoln is one of the best live vocalists out there - he also plays a mean bass. This is brilliant.

Set Me Free is another fantastic riff from Scott combining his patented power chord/scratchy rhythm style that I miss to this day - this style of playing got lost somewhere along the line, and his solo interludes are fantastic - usually harmonies are involved, some fleet fingered picking, and melody just flies out of the guy. Andy Scott may be the very best of the lesser known British hard rock axemeisters. O'Hora is spot on every step of the way - he's definitely the band's hidden weapon, and Bisden is still pummeling his kit like he's pissed at it.

Of course, they end the night with, "It's, it's, it's, it's, the Ballroom Blitz" - this is the tune that hasn't left America's airwaves since it's inception, and there's good reason. This is rock - it's loud, tuneful, humorous, and oh yeah - it rocks. No band ever made better having bottles hurled at it than this, that's for damned sure. Scott wraps it up classily with another cool, cool, cool solo, and they are out of here.

Sweet have done what I worried couldn't be done - they have found a way to replicate an old album without alienating me. This album is digital download only, and can be found through the usual digital avenues, and the band's website,

Great job, Andy Scott - you've not just furthered the memory of a great band, you've shown that a band's music can survive with honor, beauty, and panache. Congrats to all the band on a job fantastically done.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Steve Lukather: "I Got Back On The Horse" (Part II)

                     "The Beatles are the on-switch to my life...."

We closed out part I of our interview discussing Steve Lukather's fear embracing tours with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci last summer - who wouldn't be a little intimidated standing between the alien with the chrome guitar, and a guy who looks like a praying mantis with a monkey grip? Of course, I'm joking a bit - Joe and Steve are both damned handsome fellows, but the fact remains that as a guitarist, you'd better have some major cajones if you are going to go toe to toe with the pair in front of a crowd of shred fans.

Obviously, Lukather is no shrinking violet - he's played with every Beatle but John, he created the riffs that made Beat It a thriller, and he's had to man up and carry the flag for his own band, Toto, through some very harrowing times. I started this segment by asking how a guy goes from G-3 to being the front guy for everybody's favorite Beatle:

Lukather: "Ringo....Yeah, there's not a lot of guys that go from G-3 to Ringo, huh? To me, The Beatles are the on-switch to my life. I've had the chance to work with Paul and George over the years - but to actually get the call from Ringo, and to be in his band.... Now we're, we're like, we're really good friends! I get texts from Ringo, or to hear, 'Hey, it's Ringo, what's up?' You're playing and you turn around, and it's Ringo Starr smiling at you and playing the drums.  
"If you would have told me when I was 8, or 9 years old, in my first band, praying that someday I'd play with The Beatles, well, you might have just as well told me I'd be landing on Mars, too! A surreal, and unrealistic dream, and here I am living it! 
"It's an incredible band - Todd Rundgren, Gregg Rolie, Richard Page, Gregg Bissonette, Mark Riviera, just fantastic musicians, all world class. We have a blast, we all hit it off so well. The band is so strong, and we work so hard - it was a completely different mindset than I'm used to, but in a way it's what I have been doing my whole life. Just going, 'What are we doing today?'"

That might even be an understatement - this seemed like a good time to ask about Steve's career as a session guitarist. Until his book is finished, saying just how many sessions Luke has played, how many hits he has recorded is incalculable. Suffice to say, Steve Lukather is amongst the most recorded guitarist in history, and he was on the A-team that segued the hit making Wrecking Crew into the album rock all-stars that dominated the Los Angeles rock world from the late '70s until the new millennium announced great changes in the recording industry:

Lukather: "I'd morph into whatever you'd want me to be. I've always enjoyed the challenge of that. Knowing what not to play! I always knew what to play for the gig, depending on what was going on. 99.9% of the sessions I played, I had no idea what I would be asked to play. 
"You had to bring whatever gear for what was going on that day. And it wasn't like you got demos and charts before the gig! That never happened! It's laughable to even say, or think that. Every guy that did that, and they were all my friends, there was certain things - you had to know what was up, and you really had to know what you were doing, and to be confident enough to change if they didn't like what you were doing. And still do it in one, or two takes, have a great sound, play in time, and be a cool hang."

One of Lukather's most heralded studio gigs was Michael Jackson's mega-hit, Beat It. You'd think that being hand chosen by the world's biggest pop star to supply the rock for producer Quincy Jones might make your heart beat a little fast, but not so for Cool-Hand Luke - he was at the top of his profession and taking the calls as they came. I asked if he was at all unnerved:

Lukather: "Not really! I had been working with Quincy a whole bunch, I had just done the whole, The Dude record of Quincy's that won all sorts of Grammys. Yeah, I did a bunch of stuff for Quincy, so being around that wasn't that weird for me.  
"Michael called me on the phone, and I hung up on him - I didn't believe it was him! He was like (falsetto), "Hi, this is Michael Jackson." And I was like, "Fuck off!" It was eight o'clock in the morning, and I thought someone was just taking the piss out of me. Then Quincy's office called, and said, "No, that was really him, you should probably call him back." Oops, sorry. 
"Working with Michael was great, he was my age. I didn't really feel intimidated. I mean, I loved The Jackson 5 growing up, but I really didn't. 
"The only time, was like being around The Beatles - when I met McCartney on those sessions (Give My Regards To Broad Street), it was like, 'Wow - that's Paul McCartney.' But he was so nice - he ended up taking me and Jeff (Porcaro) to London to work on another project. So, when you're working at that level, you come in as a pro - you're not coming in starstruck. They don't want to have to deal with that."

Moving back to the present, We spoke about Lukather's incredibly busy schedule for 2013 - in addition to releasing Transition, he is also looking at more touring with Ringo's All Star Band, and a very special tour with Toto, celebrating the band's 35th anniversary. I asked if there was a possibility for any solo shows to support the new record:

Lukather: "Oh yeah! It's all schedule, schedule, schedule. I'm a work-a-holic, what else do I do? I get up at 5:30, I practice for a couple of hours, I work out, I do my computer shit, and then I start my day by 9 o'clock. I've got all this energy to do things, and sitting around the house isn't one of them.  
"I'm on the back nine, and I want to make the most of it. I think I appreciate my life and career more than I ever have, and I have my health - I have a lot of friends who are not healthy, not well. Look at Mike Porcaro with ALS, I mean, that is a brutal disease - he's not doing well, there's no happy ending to this. 
"I'm going to see the rest of the Toto guys today. We'll go out on the road and we'll help Mike out. But, as always in this fucking business, we can't just do this - we have to get sued by two different people. Everybody wants a piece of your ass. It can get a little frustrating. 
"After I left Toto in 2007, when I was probably at my worst, I had to get away from it, and some of the people that were involved. Then Paich called me a few years later - no, David and I, Steve and Joe, we've been friends for forty years, since we were fifteen. So I was friends with those guys - there were a couple of peripheral people that I was not really friends with, I never was, even if they were in the original band, and I just didn't want to be around people who couldn't do their gig, faking it, or whatnot. 
"So, David called, and said we should put it together again. I said, well, I'll do it, of course, but Steve Porcaro has to come back, you've got to come back, and Joseph has to sing - Simon Phillips came back, God bless him, a monster drummer, and Nathan East - monster bass player, and we went out and did it in the summer of 2010 and it was so successful, and so much fun to be back with my high school buddies. 
"We were going to do some recording, but somebody said, 'We own you...' and blah, blah, blah. It gets ridiculous. I guess you're not really successful until you've got a few lawsuits against you!"

Transitions is Lukather's eighth solo record, and it is a great look at where he is today - the album is full of melodic pop, tons of great guitar, some fusion-esque interludes, but more than anything it's his singing that sells the songs - he's written some lyrics that are straight from the heart, and the record is, as he stated earlier, 'Very organic.':

Lukather: "My partner, C.J. Vanston is another monster musician. You meet someone and you click on a certain level - we were friends for twenty-five years from project to project, but we never really wrote together, or sat down in the studio together. We started on the last record (All's Well That Ends Well), and that was a very successful collaboration, so I said, 'Why don't we just start this thing together - we finished the last one,' and that's what we did. 
"He got a lot of great performances out of me and knew just what to say, because he's a great musician and I respect his opinion. The best producers to me are all great musicians, because they understand how to get a great performance, and to keep you from ruining or leaving something out that was really good that you (the artist) were too critical of, which is what I always do - I'm always beating the shit out of myself. 
"I'd say, 'Fuck that, that sucks,' and C. J. would go, 'No, no, no, no - you have to live with this for a minute man.' And he was right most of the time. I work best in collaborative situations because not only do I get things done, but I'm also saved from myself! The level of critique that I put on myself is more pressure than anybody on the Planet Earth, believe me."

No interview with Steve Lukather would be complete without talking guitars and gear, so I asked about the guitar tones on the album - they jump out of the mix and sound extremely in-your-face. A more organic tone than we've become accustomed to from the king of refrigerator racks:

Lukather: "I used the Music Man L3, which is the new version of my signature model guitar, and we went with passive pickups - Larry DiMarzio and Steve Blucher made me these great pickups (DiMarzio Transition DP254 and DP255). I wanted to go more organic for lack of a better term. I plugged straight into a Bogner Ecstasy and I manipulated the guitar with an Ernie Ball Volume Pedal. Any effects we added were plug-ins. I wanted to take all the bullshit out of the signal path. 
"I tried to play more melodically and to use more interesting phrasing rather than just pentatonic blazing bullshit. You know, that's what I was originally known for, and that's what my strongest suit is. Certainly, there are guys so fucking good you just laugh, but as far as technique goes, I'm going back to who I really am - that's what separated me, stylistically, from other people. My goal was, 'No, no, hold back a little here."

You can hear it all over Transition, Luke is playing fantastically, and every note fits - there's never a moment of too little, or too much, he nailed it by simply playing himself. In fact that's what this all seems like to me - it is as if everything he has done up to now has been a dress rehearsal, and now it's completely Steve Lukather that we're hearing:

Lukather: "Well, thank you, man - that is the nicest thing you could say. I am working really hard at my craft, and perhaps righting a few wrongs along the way. Trying to find, well, I found my inspiration again. I've been practicing and refining - not practicing chops, per se, but I'm practicing refining what I'm doing to become a better, more soulful artist. 
"You know, I've been through a lot of shit, so I mean, I can play the blues and mean it! The blues is not necessarily if I have $5 in my pocket, or not - the emotional shit is much more harsh than that. Work In Progress - that might be the next album project. 
"I'm very blessed, very honored that I have so many opportunities at a time, especially when work is a little more scarce than it used to be. If I was sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring as a session musician, it would be really hard times right now."

Transition is being released January 21 on the Mascot label.

Thanks to Steve Lukather, Steve Karas, Peter Noble at Noble PR, and Mascot.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Steve Lukather: "I Got Back On The Horse" (Part I)

            "I just wanted to take all the bullshit out of the signal path."

Steve Lukather is speaking of the manner in which he recorded the guitars for his outstanding new record, Transition, but he could just as easily be discussing the changes he's made in his life over the last few years.

Lukather transitioned from being arguably the most successful studio guitarist in history, and one of the hardest partying rockers to ever see the sun rise into being an amazingly in demand live act (last summer he not only joined Steve Vai and Joe Satriani on their European G-3 excursion, he also joined up with a Beatle in Ringo's All Starr Band), and he is, in his own words, "Probably in a better head space than I've ever been in my life - and that says a lot because I've been through a lot in this life."

Once upon a time Lukather found himself hanging up on Michael Jackson when the megastar called him at 8 a.m., so I'm lucky to be speaking with the most recorded six stringer in history at dawn in Los Angeles - turns out he's been up for hours, got in his practice for the day, the gym, and 'the computer shit,' before I've downed my first coffee, but I'm catching up.

Before we get to the fun stuff (the music), I thought I'd ask about the changes in lifestyle and his jam packed schedule for 2013:

Lukather, "I'm feeling very blessed to have so much going on, it's a trip for me - I look at it, and I go, 'Shouldn't I be slowing down?' But actually, I'm speeding up, which is great because I have the energy to do it now, you know? I'm of clear mind, body, and soul and have been for years now, and I'm a completely different person than I used to be. It's all for the better, at least I think it is! I went through a lot of pain too get here, but hey - at the same time, no pain, no gain, isn't that the cliche? 
"I woke up with one hangover too many - I looked like shit, played like shit, hated my self, and I hated a lot of people and things that were around me. I had to really clean house in every possible area. It was really hard. And then I lost my mom in the middle of it all. It was a brutal death, and it was just really hard to deal with it all at the same time.  
"It kinda gets away from you - 36 years on the road, man, 36 years on the road. Someone should try that sometime and see how that feels - I busted up my teeth, and compound fractures, and you know, some of it's on the internet for all to gawk at, it's hard to deal with, it's hard to take a look at yourself publicly, and go, OK. Not like some of my peers and my other friends that lost their way in the midst of this rock and roll nonsense, I still have my stuff, so I can only live here today and look forward. I look at the past and some of it was great, and some of it was, 'What the fuck?' So what can I say? I've had a very extraordinary life and career, I can tell you that."

Listening to Transition, you can almost hear what Lukather has been saying here. He seems to have been freed from the excesses that found him overplaying, angry, and at times even sloppily in the past. The melodies are taut, his playing has never been better, and I mostly hear it in his singing - he's very present, it's almost as if he's singing in my living room. I would suggest that he has finally found himself, and he's damned comfortable with who he is:

Lukather: "Well, yeah - I kind of lost my way in the shred fests and the whole....when you're really beat down and you're hurting inside, and there's a lot of personal issues I'd rather not get into concerning what was going on around me that were deep and intense. You find a way to numb it - you know? 
"You don't really see it in the midst of it, and you play how you feel. If I was angry, I would play too much, and still be frustrated - I would sound like what was going on inside of me. I look back on some of it with great shame. How did I let it get that bad? But there it is.  
"I could see it in my face, I could hear it in my playing, I lost my view, I lost what it was that made me different from everybody else, but I think that I have finally found my voice and my heart again, and I'm playing the way I should be playing instead of wanking off, you know?"

I know - only too well. I myself have been that lost, that far gone, and I'm only too familiar with the ring of his own incredulity at his downward spiral and revival. While we're on an uphill climb, I mention that Transition is perhaps the most complete musical statement he has made. The guy has recorded thousands of records, written platinum albums, huge hits, and played before millions of fans, but this is likely the closest we have got to seeing the fifteen year old kid in the mirror:

Lukather: "Hey, thank you, man! I really tried hard on this one - it's the most honest me I can be, the most organic I can be sonically and emotionally. 
"When I did the last album, I was at my lowest. I was going through all of it - I was sober, but I was feeling every punch. Man, you know how it is, I didn't AA, I didn't rehab, I just stopped - I even quit smoking cigarettes the same day. I said, 'No more toxic me.' And I never looked back and it's not hard for me. What was hard for me was to have to take a hard look at the things I had done, the things I had said, and the things I had played, where I say, 'What the fuck was that?' 
"The thing is what is going on around you - you suddenly see and feel. All the emotions you stuffed away for many years, in my case decades. I had a pretty good shrink to get me through it - then my shrink died! What can I say? 
"I would go on and on until this guy would go, 'What? You're kidding me, really?' And like I said, I've publicly apologized for losing my way, but the thing about it is, I got back on the horse. 
"And now I feel good - Transition. The title of that and what it means is from the darkness to the light. I've had an amazing life, I've had a few falls, that's all. It happens to human beings. Especially in this walk of life, I mean, many of my friends and peers my age, they all kind of quit at the same time, but we haven't had a secret meeting! Everybody's like, 'You can't do that shit when you're fifty.' I started out as a teenager, it was all very innocent - 'Woohoo, let's rock 'n' roll and party all night.' 
"I can't run as fast as I did when I was 18, either. I'm in pretty good fuckin' shape, I'm in better physical shape than I've been in 25 years."

Transition sounds incredibly organic - Lukather collaborated with co-writer/producer C. J. Vanston and much of the record was made with the pair sitting next to one another in the control room. I asked Steve how they approached the recording:

"Well, I really avoided many of the pitfalls of today's productions, which is all over-compressing stereo busses, using big power chords - I went to great lengths to open up with more harmony in the chords, rather than, well, there's more to chords than just fifths and thirds, you know? I went to great lengths not to just do fifths quadrupled - that sound is just so tired for me. 
"C. J. Vanston, my co-writer, producer, and partner, and I, we really strive to make it rock and to not get too fusion-y, or to go over anyone's head. It was a challenge everyday to find that fine line, which I think we did. The reactions so far have been really great - I'm realy happy after working on it so hard. 
"I'm not phoning it in, bro, I mean, a lot of guys my age, they make a record, they go out on tour and play their old shit to make money, or write songs that are just vehicles for guitar solos - and that's just not really what I do. Mind you, there are guys who play instrumental guitar that are just a million times better than me, but I think I play now to my stronger suit which is more nuanced."

Everything he says can be confirmed by a listen to Transition - there's no shortage of stunning guitar histrionics, but it fits contextually - there's no bravado, however, there is also no question that you're listening to one of the world's great axeslingers. I mention that in terms of having the right balance between songwriting, singing, guitar playing, and production, I am reminded of another recent album by a renowned guitarist, Scarlett - The Director's Cut, by Dave Kilmister of Roger Waters's band, who I am talking to the next day:

"Oh man! Tell him I said he's fucking great! I just saw that show (The Wall) - Tell him that I was at the mixing desk screaming when he played - what a great guitar player! 
"You know - you get caught up in the race of it all, and it can become this thing. Internally, and even sub-consciously you've gotta keep up with the fastest gun in the west, and that's like trying to suck your own dick - what's the point? Even if you could, you could never tell anybody, and you'd never leave the house!"

So I ask about what it was like to be on the G-3 tour with the two greatest gunslingers in rock history, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai:

"I gotta say, I was very apprehensive. I didn't know if I was the guy that should do that tour. They're all friends of mine, I love them to death, and they are a couple of the finest guitar players I've ever heard in my life - it was truly humbling to stand onstage next to them.  
"But they encouraged me - they were like, 'C'mon, you need to do this with us,' and I went out and did my 45 minute set, I opened every show, thankfully, and I got to do my thing. I sang, and played some of the more, you know - softer stuff, like Song For Jeff. I showed them a different side than shred. I didn't try to go out there and show them what I can do, because if it was a race, I woulda lost! I didn't want to be that guy. I'm totally the opposite really. I went out there full of respect and humility. They welcomed me, and the crowds - maybe they thought I was going to come out and sing Africa, or some shit, so I won a lot of people over. It was nice to get that from the audiences, because they can be tough, man.  
"I was also able to do it again in Mexico with Joe, and John Petrucci, who's also a stunning guitar player. Those guys are so bad assed that it's funny. They're so good it just makes me laugh. It's like, 'Wow - fuck it all.' But in the end, we all came out and play and we're like a bunch of fifteen year old kids playing classic rock songs, and having a laugh. It was a lot of fun, an incredibly positive experience, and I thank Joe for inviting me along to do that."

End of Part I - tomorrow, Luke joins Ringo Starr's All Star Band, we talk more Transition and we finally get to Toto.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Dick Wagner: Not Only Women Bleed - A First Rate Rock Read

Dick Wagner pulls no punches, leaves no skeletons in the closet, and as always, delivers the goods with his sensational new autobiography, Not Only Women Bleed. If you like true tales of rock and roll, this is the book for you.

Wagner uses the same sensibilities here that he displayed for decades as a bandleader with the legendary Detroit rockers, Frost, to his stints as part of the Butch and Sundance of guitar teams with Steve Hunter - they went from Lou Reed's greatest ever live band to The Alice Cooper Band, while also supplying the best pinch hitting appearance in rock history on Aerosmith's Train Kept A Rollin' (Steve Hunter plays the incendiary intro solo and Wagner followed that with the live sounding vicious middle section). Wagner also supplied the guitars for Peter Gabriel's first solo hit, Solsbury Hill, Kiss's Beth and other tracks on the band's Destroyer album. As a writer, he supplied the music for most of Alice Cooper's post Billion Dollar Babies hits, including, of course, the mega-hit, Only Women Bleed, referred to in the books title. He goes straight for the throat, takes no prisoners, and leaves no witnesses.

Alice Cooper tells me: "The last time I saw Steven Tyler, he says to me, 'How's the dynamic duo? And I said, "Who are you talking about?" And he said, 'Hunter and Wagner.' You know, he still refers to Hunter and Wagner as the two best guitar players in America."

Instead of boring the reader with unnecessary segues, dull passages, and inconsequential drivel, Wagner keeps it lean and clean as he presents his life in a series of vignettes - a brilliant method that could serve as a template for rock autobiographies. I read this in one sitting, literally unable to set it down, or to stop being amazed, and as often as not laughing my ass off. Mind you, it's not all laughs. Wagner was the classic '70s rock success/casualty - for every gold record and sold out tour, there is a tale of drug riddled depravity and nightmares of cocaine, sex, and alcohol abuse. This is an incredibly entertaining read - you run the gamut of emotions - sometimes you'd like to smack the shit out of the guy, sometimes (more often than not) you wish you were a fly on the wall as rock history is written in real time, and other times you want to give the author a big hug.

The great thing is that the story comes out so unexpurgated that you know it's as real as the author can remember. There may be different opinions on what may have transpired in some instances, as there will always be, but you never get the impression that Dick is dodging bullets, or pulling the wool - no, this is so real it hurts. A lot, and almost as often as you'll find yourself laughing out loud.

It's very tempting to insert a bunch of hilarious, informative, shocking, and heartfelt excerpts into this review, but I'm not - I want you to buy this book and find them for yourself. Take my word - this is as real as it gets, and it is worth every dime, even if Wagner hadn't gone the extra mile to include two whole CDs of music. Not Only Women Bleed is the rarest of rock autobiographies - it tells you what really happened.

Dick Wagner isn't the most famous guitar player on the planet, but he's always been amongst the best. Take this trip through his past with him though, and you'll not only know him (and quite likely dig him for his heart on the sleeve honesty), you'll also have a much clearer picture of such artists as Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Aerosmith, Kiss, and probably another 30 or 40 rock legends along the way.

I remember exchanging a few e-mails with Dick back in 2007, and he mentioned several times that he was seriously considering writing it all down and putting out the story of his life - I had no conception that it would be this great of a read. I've been no saint in this life, but I've also not been a complete sinner - you always wonder how a life well lived will read, and I must say that this book in an incredible primer. Wagner comes full circle from being a young guitar star who's maybe a bit full of himself, to full blown jet setting, drug and sex addled superstar, to humble but still outspoken gentleman who isn't afraid to tell the truth and offer it up. It's an incredible ride, and I hope you buy this book and take the trip for yourself. It's kind of like the original movie version of M.A.S.H. Lots of ups, lots of downs, lots of tears, but a helluva lot more laughs.

Congratulations, Dick - long may you run, my friend.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Snakecharmer: No Substitute For A Good Pedigree

Snakecharmer is an excellent album by any measure. The songs snap to attention, Chris Ousey sings his ass off, guitarists Mick Moody and Laurie Wisefield sound even better than you'd guess, you suddenly realize how much of Whitesnake's signature sound came from Neil Murray's bass, Adam Wakeman sounds much closer to the Lord than his pop, and Harry James hits the traps with a commanding, cozy beat. In fact, this record is going to turn tons of heads and put plenty asses into seats when the band hits the road.

The band's veteran players have great resumes - Mick Moody and Neil Murray were at the creation of one of hard rock's finest ever moments, the original Whitesnake. Chosen by David Coverdale while the singer was still twirling the mic stand for Deep Purple, the pair with them brought enough blues rock bluster to keep comparisons to Coverdale's purple past to a minimum and allowed Whitesnake to be its own band. Neil Murray - upon listening to this record, you will know just how much he meant to the overall sound of Whitesnake, and why he has been the 'go to' guy for guitarslingers the likes of John Sykes, Tony Iommi, Gary Moore and my old boss and friend, Michael Schenker. Harry James is best known as Thunder's thunder, but he's beat the tubs for Terraplane, Magnum, Ian Gillan, Graham Bonnet, and many others - he's as close as we have to the distinctive, slamming backbeat of Cozy Powell, and he is just exemplary on this outing. I don't exactly know how Laurie Wisefield has remained one of rock's greatest unknown guitarists, but that's a relative supposition - after his time in Wishbone Ash, he was Tina Turner's axe man, he's played with a literal who's who of rock greats such as Joe Cocker, Roger Daltrey, and Meat Loaf before settling down in this millenium as a permanent member of the hugely successful Queen musical, We Will Rock You, which has been seen by over 2.5 million satisfied fans. Like I said, unknown is a relative term. Adam Wakeman is getting to be as well known as his Yes-man father, Rick. His time with Yes, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, The Strawbs, and his own excellent band Headspace tells you much about his talents.

Chris Ousey may be the least known of this charming bunch, but it's largely due to his well weathered vocal chops that makes this record much more than a coattail follower. The last thing I wanted to hear here was a Coverdale clone, and while Ousey approaches nodding his hat to the past, this may be a matter of singing and writing songs with Moody and Murray more than any obvious attempt at giving the king snake his due. If, by chance, you heard the singer's 2011 solo debut, Rhyme & Reason, you'll know that he's his own man, and a fine, fine singer and songwriter. If forced to compare him to anyone, I'd say and earthier, edgier version of Mr. Big's Eric Martin, but that's only if forced. It takes a helluva voice to be heard over this glorious din, and Ousey makes himself a star with this outing.

Naming the band Snakecharmer is absolutely the only bone I have to pick with this outfit, as my fear is that the "Snake" connotation may cause some to not take them as seriously as they should be taken, but I'm guessing the quality of this record will soon have this notion rendered moot. I accept that Moody and Murray were a part of that puzzle which is huge - one listen and you'll see - while these tracks are obviously 'Snake oriented, how could they not, as Moody wrote such hits as Slow an' Easy, Fool For Your Loving, and many others with Coverdale. This record can stand beside any Whitesnake record, and stand proud.

Wisely avoiding any sense of cliche, the band is born with a nicely jangling, strummed acoustic and an unadorned vocal for its first verse, before the band jumps in and thickens things up. My Angel is a great introduction, and when you get to the bridge, you're going to be sold - what sounds like a rollicking hit single suddenly turns east and a beautiful and huge slab of synth sits wonderfully under Ousey's switch to a minor modality and it's over too soon, but not sadly, as it is replaced with one of the most majestic pieces of slide guitar I've heard in ages, only to melt into a sexy harmony duet between Moody and Wisefield before resolving into a snarling return to the final verse. An auspicious beginning, indeed.

Accident Prone is up next, and it's closer to the band's musical past, especially when you hear Neil Murray's pumping bass line - his bass marries a drum kit as well as any, and perhaps this was as much the key to Whitesnake's signature sound as the vocals and guitars. Ousey is given more to melody than the blues, and his voice is so distinct that again any comparisons are fairly senseless. The band produced this disc themselves, and the decades of experience are obvious - it's rich, organic, and I can't imagine that this is pretty near what the band will sound like on tour. The arrangements keep moving and never sound stale - the guitar solo is straight out of the early days of Bad Company (think Can't Get Enough), and will have you smiling from ear to ear. They haven't reinvented the wheel, but they've produced a damned fine one, and it rolls quite fabulously.

Great intros are a wonderful thing, and the first 30 seconds of To The Rescue serves as a reminder that Moody also wrote Slow and Easy - mind you, this is a bird of another feather, but the lineage is clear. The thump of the bass, the slide guitars gently sweeping the song back to the firm beat, and this is mid-tempo bliss. Wakeman's organ work is masterful - he's got chops galore, but he knows how and when to pick his spots. Here, he's providing the underpinning and it's perfect. I'll tell you now, every solo slot on this record is nigh on perfect - tasty, tuneful, and melodic in the extreme. These guys aren't just veterans, they're playing like they have something to prove, and are full of proper piss & vinegar.

Falling Leaves is a classic piece of British hard rock balladry - the background vocals harken back to the days of Mott The Hoople, a bit of Queen, and this ends up being a pretty good road map to the pop majesty of the best of Def Leppard. My litmus test for records that harken back to the '70s and '80s is to through it on a shuffle with a couple of albums from that esteemed era, and I must say I did that, and Snakecharmer would have done quite well in any era. Oh yeah, and more sweet guitar solos.

Slow simmering is a specialty with the 'Charmers, and A Little Rock and Roll is a cool percolator. Bluesy melodic British rock - if you dig it, you'll dig it. The acoustic guitars make another appearance, prefacing a wobbly bit of Leslie-fied laid back picking that is taken over by a nice piece of wah-wah work. The ending gets expansive with huge keyboards, epic drumming, and more sumptuous guitars. They lay it on pretty thick, but that's how we like it.

Turn Of The Screw is a barrel house rocker - sounding a bit like Aerosmith when they still meant something. This may have fit well on Get Your Wings as the piano and guitars slip and slide underneath Ousey's wailing. Before things get to familiar some clever songwriting turns things around for a cool twist, and then there's more great guitaring - Wisefield and Moody sound like they have a blast playing together, and I'll take all they can deliver.

The Ghost of Whitesnake raises its head on Smoking Gun perhaps more than anywhere on the record. It's very Coverdale-esque, but not in the sense that it apes anything in particular - it was bound to happen, and actually it's not a bit painful, as the band throws in so many cool riffs, fills, stops and starts that I can't really be mad.

As melodic AOR goes, this is some stellar magic. You can tell with every beat, with every note that this bunch was there at the beginning. Stand Up is a classy number that makes me remember Foreigner's glory days, and Murray's heavily chorused fretless bass solo sections are great ear candy - this is another one that will come across great live. It is my hope these fellows find a way to make it onto a lot of stages in 2013, as this stuff all sounds like it was written for the stage.

Guilty As Charged - the riff sounds familiar, the organ provides the perfect perch, and they're off and running. One of the band's finest qualities is in knowing when to push, and when to pull - there's no ball hogging, and it's teamwork all the way. Ousey is excellent again, and while this may be the record's weakest cut, it still sits well in the rotation.

The band turns it up for Nothing To Lose, a rolling thunder piece that steams from beginning to end with classic British brawn. the guitarists toss phrases back and forth quite nimbly, Ousey is still shouting his lungs out, and this is as fine as any album cut from their hallowed past.

Cover Me In You is a standout track with which to wrap up the proceedings, and after an intro that will have you thinking Lizzy, but with a solid backbeat instead of Brian Downey's Irish swing, this covers a lot of familiar territory in the best sense - again, Snakecharmer is not Shakespeare but what they are is a charming and exuberant bunch of rock vets who know exactly what they are doing it.

Sankecharmer is a charmer - a much better album than I had even hoped for, and I hope this is just the beginning. This bunch appears to supply rock solid material in a very smooth and easy fashion, and I can only see them improving with experience and age, which is a hell of a thing to be saying about a band with well over a hundred years of combined experience under their belts, but I'm saying it. Everyone here is at the very tops of their games, and I hope this is only the beginning of a long engagement.