Saturday, June 18, 2011

Uriah Heep - Still 'eavy, Still 'umble - Concert Review

Uriah Heep sounds better today than ever before. Last night in Dayton, Ohio, they had a crowd of almost 4,000 on their feet - singing, shouting, and raising their fists for two hours of incredibly inspiring rock and roll. The band smiled as much as the audience, and it could best be described as a love-fest. This is not a band that rests on its longstanding laurels - their new album is remarkably fresh, and they played with more excitement and energy than bands a third of their age.

Mick Box still leads the band, and is as animated and exciting a guitarist as he was the first time Uriah Heep played in Dayton, back on April 1, 1976. By then, the Heep had been gigging for six years, longer than the lifespan of most rock bands. If you have ever wondered where the name Uriah Heep came from, he is a famous character from Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield, whose signature phrase, "very 'umble," led to the title of the band's first album, Very 'eavy, Very 'umble, back in 1970. Box has been on board since the beginning, and shows no sign whatsoever of slowing down.

The band boldly started the show with I'm Ready, a hard charging rocker off their new Frontiers Records release Into The Wild. From then on, longtime vocalist (25 years) Bernie Shaw put it like this:

"We're gonna spend the next few hours playing some of our new album, and some of our classics, some new, some old, some new, some old...."

Shaw is still seen by many as the new guy in the band, but make no mistake - Bernie is a pro's pro - a great voice, a confident front-man, and a great entertainer. His voice is powerful and crystal clear, not missing a note all evening, nor shying away from even the highest peaks in the band's catalog. The passion that Shaw brings to the table is palpable, as he utilizes every skill he has learned over a long career, including a tremendous amount of sheer horsepower, and a soulful vibrato that rivals the best of the classic British hard rock royalty.

I am amazed to report that the audience seemed not to be able to delineate the old from the new, as they cheered on tunes from the new record with as much enthusiasm as they did on classics such as Rainbow Demon, The Wizard, July Morning, Stealin', Look At Yourself, Lady In Black, and their highest charting single, Easy Livin'. Quite often, a crowd will merely tolerate a seasoned band's new stuff to get to the old - but when the Heep played Kiss Of Freedom, a song off of Into The Wild, the fifty something rocker next to me asked, "Is that old or new?"

The sound of Uriah Heep has remained pretty consistent over the years. Couched upon the thick and sophisticated mix of Box's trademark guitar tone, tasty keyboards, and thundering drums are the band's great harmony vocals, which so wonderfully support the ever melodic efforts of their lead singer. This band is as tight as it gets, an amazingly well oiled machine. This show was the third concert of a tour that will see Box and company play across America for most of the summer.

Bassist Trevor Bolder is still as captivating a performer as he was when he tread the boards with David Bowie as part of Bowie's best band, The Spiders From Mars. His bass playing is the pinnacle of the art. He maintains a very steady bottom end, and his phrasing is fabulous, as he makes great note choices, adds many cool fills, and frequently flies up the fretboard with great daring and dexterity. His performance on the classic July Morning is nothing short of sheer brilliance. Watching Trevor pluck the strings of his well worn P-Bass was a sight to see - his right hand attack making the bass's large strings look like rubber bands. His Ampeg SVT amps must be some of the happiest in the business, as he puts them through the paces.

Bolder also supplies a good deal of the classic Heep harmonies, and he hits every note, every time. My only regret was that the bassist did not sing his song from the new album, Trail Of Diamonds. This song makes me ache for a Bolder solo record. It is a great tune in the UH mold, with the veteran singing as well as any lead vocalist out there, and is reason enough for you to buy Into The Wild, which is as good an album as any in the band's catalog.

One of the recurring high points of the evening was when Bernie Shaw would sidle over to Bolder's microphone. This created a very cool scenario, in which Shaw and Bolder were harmonizing, and just above and behind them stood keyboardist Phil Lanzon (another 25 year veteran), adding a third, or sometimes fourth harmony. These guys sing like birds, and they do it while they are playing their instruments and entertaining 4,000 adoring fans. This is one of the hallmarks of the Uriah Heep sound for these last 40 years, and makes you wonder what rock critics sometimes think, and say. A Rolling Stone reviewer once infamously promised to commit suicide if the band made it big. How opposed to that is this comment from Def Leppard vocalist, Joe Elliott:

"Uriah Heep were the best band that we've ever toured with, either as a headline or support, because there was no ego, no pretentious kind of stuff. They were great, and we learned a lot from them”

While they were never the critic's darlings, the band have remained fan favorites, and I can't tell you how many people I heard, as I passed through the crowd, reminiscing about seeing the band over the last four decades. Stealin', the band's hit single follow up to Easy Livin', had the crowd on their feet and singing, early in the set. It was apparent from the huge smile on Bernie Shaw's face that while the band didn't know what to expect out of a Midwest audience on a sizzling June evening, they were tremendously pleased and gratified. Ever 'umble, Uriah Heep looked like they had just won the lottery. Again, and again Mick Box wore the grin of a school-boy, and he had this to say:

"After tonight, we've a thousand miles to drive for the next show, but the sound of this crowd will ring in our ears the whole way."

The adoration was being passed around like a bottle of Ripple at a hobo's ball - it gets passed, but each party partakes sweetly. I'm not sure who got the better deal, but everybody came away a winner.

Uriah Heep has always been a synergistic entity, with each component serving the greater whole. Drummer Russell Gilbrook is the kid of the band at just 47 years of age. While not quite as seasoned as the rest, he is a tremendously deft drummer, supplying equal parts of power and finesse. A favorite of the European drum clinic crowd, he has also worked with Tony Iommi, Van Morrison, and skiffle legend Lonnie Donnegan, as well as replacing Cozy Powell in the band Bedlam before being chosen to succeed a nearly irreplaceable Lee Kerslake as Heep's kit sitter. He takes a solo early in the set, and had the crowd contributing instantly. This band's love of their audience is always apparent, and they thank their fans repeatedly, and with huge smiles.

Phil Lanzon fills out the roster, and his expertise on the Hammond organ, various synths, and background vocals is astounding. As he whips his hands feverishly across the keyboards, he supplies great harmonies, then slings the microphone away to go back to the ivories. Lanzon is a masterful musician, and his sound is huge - his organ work ranks with the best. He also serves as a great cheerleader from his riser that sits above and behind Shaw and Bolder for most of the show.

After going off to thunderous applause, the band returns for their encores, which include 1977's Free 'n' Easy, a song which sees the band invite some 20 people on to the stage for some old school headbanging. 'Til the very end Heep delivers the goods, giving their fans what they want - a great night of rock and roll by any measure.

And so it was, on this balmy Friday evening in Ohio - a crowd of 4,000 well wishers, a band nowhere near past its prime - all uplifted by the spirit of rock and roll, Uriah Heep style - none more so than myself.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Live At Last - Black Country Communion in Indy

Black Country Communion took Indianapolis by storm last night, delivering a fantastic live offering of a host of tunes from the band's two albums, and a couple of classic nuggets. They sound like a mature band that has been gigging for years, not just a few shows. Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa may be leading the charge from out front, but drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian are clearly two facets of this hard rock diamond.

The Voice of Rock, Glenn Hughes sings the lion's share of the material, while Bonamassa sings a few tunes and supplies an endless barrage of cutting edge rock guitar work. This is a super-group full of love and respect - there are no apparent issues of ego, or one-upmanship. When Bonamassa performs his solo classic, The Ballad of John Henry, Hughes works the audience magnificently, and sings every word of the song as he roams, smiling beatifically at the young guitar star. The entire band looks as if they are having a blast, and having collectively played with an amazing array of rock and roll royalty, they know they are a very powerful machine at work.

Derek Sherinian may be the least well known member of BCC to the casual listener or fan. The keyboardist has 10 albums of his own under his belt, and a resume that includes Dream Theater, Billy Idol, Alice Cooper, KISS, Al DiMeola, and practically every major rock guitarist of the last 20 years. On BCC's first record, many fans complained that the keyboards were under-utilized, and under mixed. This has been more than rectified on the band's new album, which is out this week and garnering near unanimous rave reviews.  The record heavily features Sherinian's awesome skills at both playing and arranging. On stage, Sherinian is as loud as Joe and Glenn, and actually has the only unaccompanied solo of the show, which was loud, dynamic, and allowed Sherinian to flex his musical muscle.

The show kicked off with the band's self titled opener, Black Country. Glenn Hughes's performance gave great credence to my habit of late, that of describing him as "the last rock star." I'm hard pressed to name another 70s rocker who is still in as fine a voice, or as energetic on stage. In an age where many have lost some high range, and a step or two on the boards, Hughes is still hitting every note of the 1973 Deep Purple classic track, Burn. Watching him run the stage is like viewing someone ice skating on a cliff. Before the show, Hughes had this to say:

"On the stage, I am fearless. This isn't arrogance, or ego, I'm like anyone else - I have fears all day long. But they disappear the moment I walk on stage."

Fearless indeed! The man never once retreats from a high note, or a low growl - the dynamics of his vocals go in an instant from a tender whisper to an impassioned wail. In this band, Hughes has chosen to keep the focal point on the songs, and the band. His incredible histrionics are kept to a minimum, and his melodicism is maximized. Even the hardest rockers in the set have their fair share of melodic beauty.

Guitarist Joe Bonamassa continues to evolve before the public eye. In his role here as axe star and occasional vocalist, the six stringer seems to relish the role of full time rock guitar hero. His solos are incendiary and masterful in their technical wizardry, but for me, where he is shining the most is in his sophisticated rhythm work, his single string song signatures, and his writing. His composition, The Battle For Hadrian's Wall, off the band's new album is a great example, as Joe switches seamlessly between the necks of his custom Music Man Doubleneck 6/12. This song has it all, and a great vocal from Joe as well.

On The Ballad of John Henry, the tune Total Guitar Magazine named as one of the ten best riffs of the last decade, Bonamassa takes a solo that is completely unhinged, as he effortlessly spits out volleys of rapid fire modal forays that end with howling bends of the lower strings, before he takes on his theramin with what I can only describe as heavy metal bliss. His aggression and verve even made the guitarist himself smile,  as his wizardry is thrown around the room in stereo by long time tour manager, and extraordinary live sound-man, Warren Cracknell. Cracknell has been expertly mixing Bonamassa shows for years, but now he's dealing with the sophisticated effects required by the new band's records, and the added burden of starting fresh each night on a new P.A. - far from the luxury of having his custom designed solo Bonamassa rig. The mix was great - vocals were crystal clear, the keyboards were prominent in the mix, and of course, the guitars sounded like a aural text-book of classic tube amp tones.

Before the show, Bonamassa kindly took the time to carefully walk me through his self designed rig (completely re-tooled for BCC). Then, after a tour of his guitar selection, he took apart his newly acquired 1959 Gibson Les Paul Junior double cut to remedy a noisy potentiometer. Joe knows his rig inside out, and spends endless hours making his magic seem effortless. He's joined in his mission for tone by long-time stage crew member Colin Moody, who has now assumed the role of guitar tech to the chief. You can see the confidence Bonamassa has in Moody, and they even agree to work together the next day installing a Hip Shot Bass Xtender machine head on Hughes's new acquired Rickenbacker 4001 bass (in a stunning azureglo blue finish). Bonamassa also talks Glenn into trying a Way Huge overdrive pedal with his bass rig - this guy is all about the never ending search for killer tones.

Some of the shows best moments are when the seasoned bassist jousts with the blues rock icon (that's Brick to the band). Hughes prods the guitarist to ever dizzying heights of daring do, and Bonamassa rises to the occasion - and on several of these occasions Hughes looks both pleased and amused by his cohort. The magic between these two is as palpable as the respect that they both confide when the other is not around. These guys fairly gush about the pleasure they are deriving from this partnership, hardly the hallmark of super-groups past.

Jason Bonham does not dodge Bonamassa and Hughes's effusive praise, either. The axeman reckons that the drum gods are smiling down upon him - he has the thunderous Tal Bergman in his solo band, and now has Bonham playing the best drums of his career in BCC. He drives the band mightily from behind his see-through yellow DW drum kit, and acts as a constant cheerleader for the band. Smiles are not off the faces of this bunch for long - they know what they are, and how good they sound. All ready, arrangements are stretching out as the band begins to gel.

The evening ended with a two song encore. The Man In The Middle is the band's lead video/single, and you couldn't ask for a funkier driving rocker. This is a staccato rhythm machine, and again you get a big sweet, melodic hook of the sort that Hughes writes so effortlessly. Once more, the enthusiastic crowd goes wild. The night then comes full circle as Bonamassa rips through the intro of the aforementioned Deep Purple classic, Burn, and the audience is again off their feet, singing, screaming, and thrusting fists. Bonamassa improvises a hot solo, and then proceeds to feed the adoring crowd Blackmore's famed arpeggios,as Sherinian contributes a huge slice of Hammond B3, also nailing the tone and feel of the Cal Jam classic. Hughes is brilliant right to the very end. I can't imagine a better ending to a fantastic show. It is scary to think what these guys will sound like in a month at High Voltage - England, prepare to be invaded.

There are other highlights throughout the show, with tunes such as Cold, or One Last Soul that are sure to become BCC classics, but I'll let you discover them for yourself. A wealth of quality clips have shown up on Youtube this week, and should sufficiently wet your whistles.

Everyone in Black Country Communion is at the top of their game, and with two excellent albums under their belt they are primed to make the world of hard rock their own. Producer Kevin Shirley was right, "This band is viral."

This was one of the best hard rock shows I have ever seen, and judging from the enthusiastic response from the packed house, I'm not alone in that opinion. The band still has three shows in the Eastern US before heading off to 25 shows in Europe, including that prestigious High Voltage Festival in London, England on July 24th. God bless Black Country Communion.

Live at last. I first wrote about Black Country Communion before a note had been recorded. I spoke with Glenn Hughes before a single note had been sung. I reviewed the first record first, and am now more convinced than ever that indeed BCC may well be the most exciting and important thing to happen to real rock music in the last twenty years.

All photos provided by Libby Sokolowski.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Black Country Communion 2 - The Confirmation

Black Country Communion is currently the best classic hard rock band on the planet. The band's second album, simply titled 2, is significantly better than their eponymous debut, and I believe I called that disc, "the best debut record by a hard rock band in the last 20 years." The nice thing is that I am right.

Glenn Hughes has risen from the ashes, and in the process built an amazing band which now possesses enough new material to headline their first tour, which begins next week. BCC is a band comprised of four of the best players in the world, but make no mistake, Field Commander Hughes is leading the charge on this one. He wrote most of this record, sings the lion's share of the tunes, and has made the record of the year.

I really hope this does not greatly aggrieve the fans of Joe Bonamassa. Joe has just finished a solo tour promoting the best record of his career, and his playing on this LP, as it is on Dust Bowl, truly amazing. He is becoming more of his own man with each release, and thus continues his ascent. Joe's fans are rather rabid in their defense of all things Bonamassa, to the point that I feel this paragraph necessary. He's growing, and I really hope his fans see not just his love of the hard rock genre, but also the emergence of a unique voice that is straddling the lines between blues, rock, and what I am guessing is a new outlook at life itself from our young guitar hero. This trip is bigger than Glenn Hughes or Joe Bonamassa, though.

Jason Bonham, I have never envied the path you walk. You follow in the footsteps of the greatest hard rock drummer in history, and whose imprint on rock is almost immeasurable. Kevin Shirley recorded the drums on this record as nakedly as possible from a modern production standpoint. No gates, no samples, just live drums. You far exceed my expectations, which were not small. Your playing on the first album was tremendous, but nothing quite like your performance here. Where the first record was technically incredible, this time out you are more subtle, more musical, and it is obvious that you brought much more influence, and many more ideas to the table this time out.

Keyboardist Derek Sherinian is all over this record, much more to the forefront, and fans will now understand what all the hub-bub is about. Black Country Communion's debut showed little of Sherinian's brilliant playing and arranging skills, but you must understand that that record was recorded in a matter of days, and by a band which hadn't worked together previously - hence the lack of more integrated or complex keyboard arrangements. Not so on 2. Sherinian is heavily featured on every cut and solos mightily on several tracks which I will discuss in greater detail shortly.

Black Country Communion is a four piece band with a fifth member. Producer Kevin Shirley literally started the band, and has been an integral part of every move the band has thus far made. Shirley shares eight co-writing credits on this album, close to what George Martin should have received from The Beatles. Every interview I have read by the group, or the producer talks of blood being spilled, and the murder of many of every member's creative darlings. These are not small egos we are dealing with here, these are four of the most recorded musicians in their field, and a producer who has mixed, mastered, and engineered Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, Iron Maiden, and Journey. Opinions are bound to be strong when espoused by such pros, and Shirley has succeeded in making this sound like a pure act of synergy. He is unquestionably the best hard rock producer working.

As I waited patiently for the delivery of the record to my doorstep, I wondered what my reaction would be upon the first listen. Glenn Hughes has repeatedly stated that this was the one. He is tremendously proud, enthusiastic, and vocal about the amount of time, energy, love, and passion he put into its writing. Still, I wondered how it would compare to the first - would it rise to that very high standard, and match the magic the band created on their first sojourn?

I'm a little embarrassed to have doubted the irrepressible Mr. Hughes. He is a man who is truly walking the walk. No matter how much he pontificates, his performances are still leaving his words in the dust. He is in tremendous voice, his bass playing is spectacular throughout, and his writing keeps getting better and better.

The Outsider kicks it off, and once again a hard charging riff rifles in another great record. Hughes is indeed The Messenger, maybe the last real rock star, or maybe even the first new rock star of the second chapter. He's taken to fully assuming responsibility for his words - he's singing purely in the first person, and it shows in a new born sense that he is telling his story, singing his song. Joe Bonamassa has brought a new voice to the realm of rock riffery. His playing throughout is perfect. Busy, but not obtrusive - he and Hughes are flying down the highway with an amazing drum escort. What I wasn't expecting was the hellacious guitar/keyboard dual in the song's solo section. The pair trade eights, and each pass gets hotter and hotter, when they finally meet in the middle for some unison dueling. It's playing that is reminiscent of the days when Gary Moore faced off with Don Airey. Hughes then takes charge with a throbbing bass line, and Bonham joins in to bring in the final chorus. Wow, what a beginning.

Next up is a sound the likes of which I have not heard since the days when the name Aerosmith still meant something. The Man In The Middle is wonderful. Hughes is singing about a topic which he may know better than anyone, the dangerous path of rock fame, and the peril it holds. Hughes' lyrics have never been this concise, or this close to home, and it makes a huge difference. The passion he brings to the lovely b-section is awe inspiring and ultra melodic - rock ear Nirvana.

Joe Bonamassa brings one to the table next, The Fight For Hadrian's Wall, and it is a further progression of the songwriting skills he has worked so hard to develop. From a Zeppelin-esque intro, the six stringer shows his ever growing vocal talents, and his cohorts provide him with a backing track that is sublime - especially Bonham's extremely creative, and inspired kit work. The drummer is subtle and supportive throughout, bouncing between rhythmic fills and powerful drive. Bonamassa is in great voice, and I can hear the Paul Rodgers comparisons already.

Hughes then takes back the wheel, and Save Me  sounds like it came from a Led Zeppelin rehearsal, which is actually where the original idea was birthed. The riff is supplied by Jason Bonham, salvaged from the aborted attempt at a Zep reunion. For those who will charge the band with coming too close to the spirit and sounds of   Zeppelin and Deep Purple, I can only remind them that this is natural - Bonham is Bonham, Hughes was a huge part of Purple, and Shirley certainly spent a lot of time and energy working with Jimmy Page. I see this more as a logical progression.

Bonamassa's guitar playing is continuing to improve - hard for some to swallow, but Joe is ever growing, and evolving into a more distinctive, and recognizable stylist. I am hearing Joe, and less of his influences with every record he makes. He sounds more like the guitarist in a great band than the hot hired hand that he sounds like on the band's debut - as if he's less concerned with rock histrionics and more concerned with the compositions and his place within them. His playing has never been short of technical wizardry, but now he sounds more like he belongs to the music, and the music belongs to him.

Glenn Hughes wrote Smokestack Woman for Bonamassa to sing, but the guitarist kicked it back to Hughes, who again is startling with his passion, and honesty, as he sings, "it serves me right to suffer, I live in sin." This album may be Hughes's grand confession, prayer, and message of redemption. He's just released his autobiography, and now he seems to be singing it. We've spoken a good deal about his legendary addiction and recovery, and I know of no one who has more completely recovered, and been more totally reborn. At nearly 60, Hughes is in full possession of his tremendous talent and gifts, and is perhaps more driven than any musician I can name.

Faithless is perhaps the most unique tune on the record. This song crosses many roads, and truly sounds like nothing but Black Country Communion. The interplay between the four is inspired, as each member shines gloriously, and in synch. Bonham's drumming has me smiling a huge smile as he explodes in fury, then backs off the accelerator as Bonamassa uncorks the solo of a lifetime - this is knocking at the door of true greatness. He runs the gamut of his vocabulary, and does it in a way that never appears to serve anything but the song. Sherinian is also wonderfully cinematic here, taking this to epic territory.

"I'll cut to the chase. And I've told Joe how I feel about this song. It brings me to tears." That's what Glenn Hughes says about An Ordinary Son, Bonamassa's next turn at singing, and fronting this mighty machine. Once again, we see a writer writing about his inner being, and again we are better for getting to experience this offering. It's not just growth as a singer, writer, and guitarist we are hearing, but perhaps a spiritual awakening dawning upon our young guitar hero. This is very close to Bonamassa's solo song style, but the band is more explosive than on Joe's solo records. Joe's solo band is a great band, but I am not certain they have ever been unleashed like this bunch.

I Can See Your Spirit returns the band to full throttle riff machine, and this is gonna explode when they play it live. The sound of Hughes and Bonamassa playing in unison is a glorious sound, and when Bonamassa goes into Guitar God mode, Hughes plays some acrobatic bass to support his young charge. Next, we have Sherinian attacking his Hammond B3 with dexterity and daring. Yeah, this is gonna flat out rock some theaters.

An ultra-melodic blues tune follows, and one wonders how big the smile is on Gary Moore's face up there in heaven. While this swims in the same sea as Gary's blues, it brings the Hughes stamp of sophistication to the awesome chord changes (maybe a bit Beatle-ish even?), and Bonamassa owns it on this one. He plays from his heart in a way I have not previously detected. Little Secret is indeed, "a storm on the rise."

Hughes revisits his funky past with Crossfire, a sophisticated mid-tempo rocker that features silky smooth vocals, and some more great, and unexpected changes. I'm amazed at how much these guys listen  - what I mean is that you have four virtuosos who never step on one another, instead, they often play their coolest licks under another person's solo. Hughes is an astoundingly solid and inventive bassist, a fact sometimes overshadowed by his amazing vocal talents. He's all over this record with a huge tone, and great chops.

Cold brings the record to its conclusion, and it does so in a most sensational form. This takes me straight back to the great Deep Purple album, Stormbringer, a record that may not have pleased one Ritchie Blackmore, but I found to be an incredible display of instrumental chops and emotion. In the face of Glenn Hughes's tremendous success and activity, it is easy to forget the loss of friends he has suffered, and the price he has paid for his excesses in his past. He has completed this section of the circle - claiming his right to his talent and drive, without the misery of addiction, and plague. He has written, played, and led an incredible band to its next level.

Had this record been recorded and released just after the breakup of Deep Purple, it would have made Black Country Communion one of the world's biggest bands. I see no reason why that result should not occur today.

Black Country Communion 2 is a great record by any score-sheet. This band and their producer have done what I wasn't sure they would, or could - they have literally blown away the record I wrote of so glowingly a year ago. The band starts its first US tour in just days - they are in rehearsal as I type. I will be seeing them in Indianapolis in eight days. I am expecting to be amazed. I roundly, and soundly congratulate Joe Bonamassa, Kevin Shirley, Jason Bonham, Derek Sherinian, and especially Glenn Hughes on the creation of a great band, and another great record.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Uriah Heep - Into The Wild - Album Review

Uriah Heep's 23rd studio album is the best record the band has released since the days of David Byron and Ken Hensley. Maybe it's even the best record in the band's 41 year history. I can state without hesitation that if this album had seen its release soon after Byron was fired in 1976, the story of the Heep would have been one closer to the legacy of AC/DC. To replace a singer as identifiable as Byron is a tough task, and only AC/DC comes to mind as an example of a band that ever successfully pulled it off.

Into The Wild is a very, very good album. It stands on its own without condition, regardless of when it saw its release. The title tune begins with the Hammond organ tone you always want to hear from a classic British rock band, and the heavily overdriven intro is kicked into gear in fine fashion by stalwart guitarist Mick Box, drummer Russell Gilbrook, and bassist extraordinaire Trevor Bolder. Cool harmonies, a singable chorus, and lead vocalist Bernie Shaw make this a memorable song, not just something attached to a great riff. This is too energetic, too melodic, and too exciting to be coming from a band that's been on the boards for 40 years, but fact is, it is all of this.

Mick Box has been the driving force of Uriah Heep since every guitar player in America went out and bought a Foxx Fuzz/Wah to emulate his tones on such hits as Easy Living, and Stealer. All credit to Box that he never falls back on the easy money and tries to replicate these past glories. Instead, he focuses on crafting well played rock and roll riffs, choosing to explore newer ground, as opposed to plodding through familiar paths. His aggression, fiery attack, and sharp edged tones belie the years, and almost make one blush in their sheer audacity and passion.

I'm Ready is a great example of Box's take on Uriah Heep, 2011. His tone is familiar, yet it's a new tune, and his soloing sounds like the guy who played those old hits, then spent the next 30 years working on his craft, and is continuing to grow. Surrounded by the massive tones provided by keyboardist Phil Lanzon, and the explosive drumming of Gilbrook, Box comes through shining. The tune sounds warmly familiar to any longtime Heep fan, but only in style and tone.

Bernie Shaw has now been fronting Uriah Heep for 25 years. However, he's still seen in the Americas as the new kid. He's kept the band moving forward for decades, and he's made the band his own. His singing has gotten better over the years, a relative rarity amongst aging hard rockers, and even more of a rarity is the fact that his writing has continued to improve - to the point at which every song on this album is a proud addition to the legacy of this long underrated group.

Uriah Heep's stock in trade has always been the keyboard and vocal driven madrigal. Here, Trail of Diamonds takes its place alongside such heralded songs as Sunrise, and July Morning, when suddenly Mick Box tears off a volley of notes that are as Ozzy as anything, before taking the tune down a rockier trail that guarantees a smile from any fan of David Byron. Byron's work was often great, and the band does his memory justice in a manner that surely has David smiling down upon them. This tune is a Heep classic, and maybe even better than its predecessors. The vocals, and melody are truly astounding, and I smile to think of the joy this must bring to the entire band.

Trevor Bolder is best known as the mutton-chopped bassist from David Bowie's Spiders From Mars. He should be better known, as he is  amongst a handful of rock bassists that I consider to be the best in the world. His playing is never less than stellar - his choices are always wonderful, his tone perfect, and he is constantly pushing the envelope with great notes, runs, and fills. After 40 years of stellar service, Bolder is still pushing, never resting on his laurels, or mailing it in. He also contributes a great lead vocal on his tune, Trail of Diamonds.  On every cut, his playing is a jewel. If this was the only place you had to study, you could walk away being a fine bassist.

Nail On The Head starts the album, and if there were still such things, this would be the single. It's very immediate, a straight ahead rocker that if I had to qualify, I'd say it sounds like Billy Squier writing for Deep Purple circa Perfect Strangers, a very cool swagger going on. Again, Mick Box is soloing like man half his age, and shaming most of the fodder that makes up modern rock radio along the way.

Strong choruses are in abundance, and nothing here is more appealing than the unexpected twist of the tale that takes I Can See You, into the land of milk and honey -  as gorgeous a refrain as I've heard in too many years. Excellent writing that is once again familiar, but new.

Keyboardist Phil Lanzon signed up in 1986, and has since been a huge component of the Heep sound. His organ playing is never buried, it's always thrusting aggressively into every mix on the album. He sounds like he's ingested every riff Jon Lord ever laid down, and put his own spin on them along the way. Uriah Heep always featured the Hammond pretty prominently, but Lanzon ratchets it up a good deal, and it is often the main rhythm instrument, allowing Mick Box to play more colorfully. This results in some very exciting verses and fills throughout. Lanzon, like Bolder is a player who is right at the top of his field, yet gets not nearly the attention he deserves.

Ensemble vocals have always been a large factor in the Heep DNA, and they've certainly taken their time here to create a consistently interesting and compelling blend on most every song on Into The Wild. Southern Star is a great sample of the boys doing what great British rock bands have done better than anyone else since the mid '60s.

Fans of melodic AOR will love Believe - I hope the new Journey record can keep up with this platter. If so, 2011 will be the most exciting year for new material in some time. Stylistically every song sounds like it comes from the Heep factory - forged of solid steel, with a large dose of rock and roll heart. The tune is another grand sample of the finest this genre has to offer. It features a huge dollop of wah encrusted licks from the guitar of Mr. Box.

Fear not, Mrs. Gilbrook, I've not forgotten your son. There is no greater angel in the world of rock and roll than a mother whose love allows her son the time and tribulations it takes to become a great drummer. Russell Gilbrook fills huge shoes when he steps into the seat formerly occupied by Lee Kerslake. Lee Kerslake was not just a drummer's drummer, he also contributed to the mighty chorale that made Uriah Heep so unique amongst early metal bands. Gilbrook's work on this disc is simply fantastic. He's busy, his fills are extremely musical, and he drives the band in a most compelling fashion.

Kiss of Freedom closes out the album, and it may be the finest piece on a record full of fine pieces. It has hit single sensibilities, amply demonstrates the superb technical skills of all involved, and fits the definition of epic. Christ, it even modulates, and not in a hokey way, but in a manner most majestic - maybe the hardest trick in the whole rock and roll playbook. If you're not a Bernie Shaw fan by now, my heart breaks for ya. The guy just sang the album of a lifetime.

This may be the finest Uriah Heep record. I know that to state that may be blasphemy to some Heepsters, but I'm pretty sure I'm right on this one.

Regardless of where you wish to place it in the pantheon of Uriah Heep, a listen to Into The Wild will reveal that this is a longstanding band continuing to make great music long after most of their contemporaries have lost their creative way.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Whitesnake Live At Donington 1990 - Album Review - They Got Too Good

It was the only time I ever saw David Coverdale take pause during a show. He literally froze in his tracks, and stared at the man beside me in the front row. He looked, smiled, and slyly asked, "what the f**k are you doing here?"

The man beside me was my boss at the time, guitar legend Michael Schenker, someone Coverdale obviously hadn't planned on seeing in New Orleans in March of 1990. They exchanged smiles, and David returned to the business of being the best frontman in hard rock, leading a band equipped with terrifying horsepower. Neither Coverdale, nor Schenker realized that their time was about up - they both had records high on the charts, but were about to be put to pasture by an out of tune, bitter band from the Northwest - Nirvana. They had made the fatal mistake, the mistake that put hard rock and metal on the shelf for the next decade - They got too good.

Whitesnake 1990. After four years of being at the top of the heap of the hard rock world, Coverdale put together his most talented touring outfit, featuring guitarists Steve Vai and Adrian Vanderberg, bassist Rudy Sarzo, and legendary drummer Tommy Aldridge. They packed out arenas across America, and Europe to great notices, and co-headlined for the second time, The Monsters of Rock at Castle Donington, perhaps the highest profile festival of its day.

Live At Donington 1990 is finally being released on CD, and DVD (Frontiers Records), and it is as good an example of just how good hard rock got. Coverdale is in amazing voice, the guitarists are afire, and the brutal rhythm section lets no one rest. Coming at the end of a decade that saw skills and adventurism ever escalate, this is indeed as good as it got. This is a great live record, by a great live band.

There are those who will say that the best Whitesnake featured John Sykes and Cozy Powell, others will say no, Moody and Marsden, but while all these lineups were worthy of the Whitesnake moniker, this set reveals an amazingly powerful band. This may have truly been the culmination of 14 years of band-building for the British vocalist, who is surely at the top of his game on this fantastic document.

Going back to that night in New Orleans, Steve Vai proved to me that he was perhaps the best pinch hitter of any guitarist in rock history. First, he took the reins of Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz, then he had the cajones to follow Eddie Van Halen as David Lee Roth's six stringer, and now was replacing a coterie of great axemen who had preceded him in Whitesnake. Slip of the Tongue, the record this tour was promoting, was not the best way to experience Vai. He had been called in as a last minute replacement for the injured Dutchman Adrian Vandenberg, and the result, while it made the top ten in both the UK, and America, was not the band's best. The songs had been written and arranged by Vandenberg, and it was left to Vai to do his best to fit in.

That night in New Orleans, I spent most of the evening at the side of the stage, sitting on Vai's dummy cabinet, which provided me with a rare glimpse of the naked Vai, with no effects added. I cannot remember ever being more impressed with a guitarist's performance, and mind you, this was at a time in which I heard Michael Schenker at the height of his abilities every night. He was that good.

Vai is not just a superbly original soloist, he is a stunningly good visual performer, and surprisingly a great rhythm player who leaves ample room for his co-pilot Adrian Vandenberg. Hearing this show some 22 years later, it is clear that musically, this was in many ways Vai's band onstage, and he drove it like a Maserati.

Adrian Vandenberg, mind you, is no slouch. While he is not as unique a voice as the wizard Vai, The Flying Dutchman is an astounding guitarist, and combines his melodic, and emotional soloing to create a two guitar team that provides thrill after thrill throughout this record. His solo showcase, Adagio for Strato, is a wonderfully soulful exhibition of bends, and melodious statements, which he immediately follows with the ricochet rock of The Flying Dutchman Boogie, aided by the always excellent Tommy Aldridge, whose pounding, and propulsive drumming keep Vandenberg on course. Then Adrian proceeds to wrap it up with a bit of neo-classical picking which shows he is second to no one. Bloody brilliant.

A few classic Whitesnke tunes later, and it's another solo slot, and Vai shows why he has had such a long, and successful career as the shredder's shredder. For The Love of God, Vai's first solo selection is taken off of Vai's top 20 album, Passion and Warfare, a record nearly as successful as Slip of the Tongue. A beautiful composition that is as beautiful as it is technically proficient. It's immediately followed by The Audience Is Listening, a chops fest that leaves one a bit worn, but appreciative.

Rudy Sarzo, and Tommy Aldridge provide the perfect launch pad for the guitarists histrionics, and Coverdale's incredible vocal performance. You can hear the experience they developed while working in Ozzy Osbourne's band with guitar prodigy Randy Rhoads, and together they create a constantly interesting and exciting rhythm section. Aldridge is one of the great performers behind the kit, sitting right between the quasi-jazz of Ginger Baker, and Mitch Mitchell, while embracing the showmanship and skills of Carmine Appice. Sarzo is the consummate pro, always being right in the pocket, but also playing some tremendous fills, and finding spots to shine in between the dazzling display of artistry from Vai, and Vandenberg.

Coverdale always takes the reins right back, and he delivers the goods with Here I Go Again, one of the best pop/rock songs of the decade. No matter how much the guitarists try, they never wrest the show from the man who fronted Deep Purple at California Jam. Coverdale is a man who, by virtue of his phenomenal abilities and success, was held to blame (quite unfairly) for all the excesses of the MTV '80s. All he ever did was to take the art to its apex. He rocks as hard as Ozzy, or Halford, but also has a soulful side that delivers ballads as well as rockers, and that is shown here magnificently. I quite imagine whoever sequenced this set knew both sides very well - there is never a moment in which it lags, and yet it never wears you out, either. It's more like a good lover - ever building, raising and releasing.

The hits, well they are all here. Going back to 1979's Fool For Your Loving, through the classic Slide It In, and Whitesnake (the band's self titled album from 1987 that sold 8,000,000 copies). They are played with a sense of daring, and adventure by a band that made these songs their own, while maintaining the frameworks, and essence that every fan wishes to experience.

This set will place Whitesnake where they belong historically, beside the absolute finest bands of the '80s. It will also stand beside live records by Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin as documents of just how good hard rock could get.

They got too good - so good that the genre itself had to be taken down for a generation unwilling to work as hard as those who came before. Rock and roll may never again see a time in which skills, and mastery of the art form were so essential.

If you even think you like hard rock, this is a must have record. A fabulous achievement by a tremendously talented and exciting band, and as good a singer/frontman who has walked the walk, David Coverdale.

Release Dates: June 3, 2011 - Europe
                         June 7, 2011 - North America


CD1 : Slip Of The Tongue; Slide It In; Judgement Day; Slow An Easy; Kitten’s Got Claws; Adagio For Strato; Flying Dutchman Boogie; Is This Love; Cheap An’ Nasty; Crying In The Rain (featuring Tommy Aldridge Drum Solo).

CD2: Fool For Your Loving; For The Love Of God; The Audience Is Listening; Here I Go Again
Bad Boys; Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City; Still Of The Night.

DVD: Slip Of The Tongue; Slide It In; Judgement Day; Slow An Easy; Kitten’s Got Claws; Adagio For Strato; Flying Dutchman Boogie; Is This Love; Cheap An’ Nasty; Crying In The Rain (Featuring Tommy Aldridge Drum Solo); Fool For Your Loving; For The Love Of God; The Audience Is Listening; Here I Go Again; Bad Boys; Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City; Still Of The Night.

Bonus Features: The Making of Slip of the Tongue; Slide Show.