Thursday, November 19, 2015

Leslie West - Soundcheck - No Sign Of Going Gently Into That Good Night

Leslie West
Prologue Records/Mascot Label Group
November 20, 2015
"On my tombstone, it should read, 'Leslie West: It's Neither Major Nor Minor.'" ~ Leslie West
Over the last eight years, Leslie West has delivered four excellent, excellent albums, and he continues to ratchet it up with Soundcheck, an album that manages to hit everything on the menu of what you want from Leslie West. Not as many original tunes as we've gotten used to seeing, but the covers are all done with great taste, and some damned good creative change making on some classic numbers. Believe me, Soundcheck is what you came for from Leslie West.

It think this album sees the definitive version of Leslie's recorded guitar playing and legendary tone.  I know he's not out to sell a textbook, but if you were looking to buy one, this would be a great purchase. And it's not just tone and technique - his note placement and choice of notes has never sounded better, and he's still progressing as a musician with each release, how many guys can say that at the tender young age of 69?

As impressive as that may seem, it's his singing that continues to astound me. He's gone way back to his rhythm and blues dreams with his early band, The Vagrants, and he is now the soul singer he may have wanted to emulate in his developing days as a vocalist. When I heard what he did to the standard, "You Are My Sunshine", I got goosebumps. The whole arrangement is sublime, painted in rich brushstrokes and pluckings of minor hues, and Peter Frampton plays marvelously as the two masters throw the solos back and forth (Frampton is playing with a bit of echo or delay on his sweet, thick tone, while West is playing the wickedly sweet slide with a tone that could be used as a definition for quality, but again, it's what he plays that is so stunning). He's definitely hearing things very vocally these days, and we're the lucky ones.

Another huge treat is a previously unreleased 8:17 version of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" that sees Leslie, Jack Bruce, and Joe Franco doing their very best Cream imitation:

Leslie West: "As you can hear, I was trying to reincarnate myself into Eric Clapton! The First time I listened to Jack's voice and the tone of the bass on the recording, I had tears in my eyes. I loved Jack so much."

In a very different direction, West displays his affection for the acoustic guitar on his tribute to his great friend Howard Stern, "A Stern Warning" - this is a long lost now found sibling for West's twelve string outing "To My Friend" that saw birth on Mountain's Climbing! album in 1970, and it certainly displays how West has matured as a composer, guitarist, and as a musician over the years. He has managed to constantly fine tune his musicianship in a way that few ever do, because it sure isn't easy. The guy inspires the shit out of me, to put it as plainly as I know how.

I swear to you, I never wanted to hear Ben E. King's classic, "Stand By Me", but I'm telling you, you have to hear this version of "Stand By Me", no, really, I'm telling you to buy this record. You get something of value, and a guy gets paid for a lifetime of work. When I heard the female vocalist duetting with West, I was trying hard to place a voice that I was pretty sure I hadn't heard before. Turns out it's sixteen year old Ariela Pizza, the daughter of West's longtime friend and occasional songwriting partner, Joe. I'm guessing that this young woman has been a singing for a lot of lifetime's, and she is a very pure, natural, and beautiful voice like the best of the folk singers of the early seventies, a high-water mark for the style. Her vibrato is pure honey, I can' wait to see where she's heading musically. West's acoustic accompaniment, and Rev Jones's subtle bass underpinnings is wonderful.

West and producer/engineer Mike "Metal" Goldberg have done a really great job of getting the sounds that were happening in the studio down onto disc. This might be my favorite album for guitar sounds that I've heard from Leslie yet, and he's been getting great sounds forever, but this time he captured the very essence of the playing. They've also done stellar work with West's vocals - there's no straining o hear a single nuance, and his tone is as precise and emotional as his guitar playing.

I always enjoy Leslie's rearrangements of other people's work, and wait until you hear what he's done with the Tracy Chapman nugget, "Give Me On Reason" which he dresses up as a soulful slab of genuine blues rock. The genre of blues rock has been so traditionally abused that I approach it with distrust and suspicion until I hear it done by a guy like Leslie West. He's close to being the fourth King brother on this one, and he can work out title with Mr. Gibbons, his only real competitor at what they do to my way of thinking.

"Goin' Down" is another number that has been pretty well worn over the years, and I suspect that Mr. West knows that, so I congratulate him and Goldberg for the stellar cast onboard to breathe new life into Don Nix's most famous song. Maybe for the next album they can dust off Nix's other masterpiece, "Black Cat Moan" off  and take it out for a ride on their next album. It never hurts to hope, right? Anyways, back to the roster for this one. You've got Max Middleton reprising his his classic intro from the best known version of the song on The Jeff Beck Group album from 1972, Bobby Whitlock from Derek & The Dominoes on the organ, Muscle Shoal's David Hood on bass, and some deft soloing from Queen's man Brian May from the 2:38 point on. Then you throw in a little harmonizing from Bonnie Bramlett, and there you have it.

So, Leslie West has done it again. He's leaned right in, taken another full swing, and put it over the fence. I don't know exactly how he does it, but I do know that he indeed does. He keeps inching up his considerable musical skills, and combines them with a heart that feels every beat, and deeply, even if he may try to laugh it off and deny it. The man is as true a blues man as there has ever been, because he does it for real.

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