Guitar legend Leslie West is still going strong in his late 60s, as evidenced by his latest outing. Guests include the mighty Johnny Winter and the young wizard Jonny Lang.
Leslie West is a certifiable guitar hero. On his most recent outing Still Climbing on the Provogue label, West proves that he is not a fading golden oldie while consistently displaying the deft ax chops that made him a living legend. He also is a passionate singer who possesses an instantly recognizable vocal delivery. The fusion of Leslie West’s nimble-fingered guitar fireworks with his full-throated raucous vocals serve to ignite a blues-rock powder keg throughout this release.
West has been revered by guitar aficionados around the globe, having influenced countless players with his hard-charging guitar manner that rocks while maintaining a fluidly clean melodic tone. A measure of his success and wide acceptance is indicated by Dean Guitars honoring West with a signature series of guitars, as well as notable music publications such as Rolling Stone Magazine and Guitar Player citing him in their respective lists of the all-time great guitarists.
Leslie hails from New York and began his recording career with The Vagrants, who were a garage band performing primarily cover tunes, but who did release a few original singles. His solo career had its auspicious debut in 1969 with a record titled Leslie West Mountain. Felix Pappalardi, who had produced the super-group Cream (as well as The Vagrants) produced the album and also played bass. Together they played the Woodstock Music Festival and shortly thereafter Felix was asked to join the group to play bass, write songs, produce, and provide backing and secondary lead vocals. Powerhouse drummer Corky Laing completed the final piece of the triad. They patterned their heavy sound after Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, two of the best three-piece power rock groups of the day.
Still Climbing loosely follows the successful template of West’s outstanding 2011 release Unusual Suspects (also on Provogue). Part of that record’s charm was the inclusion of all-star guests Steve Lukather, Slash, Zakk Wylde, Billy F. Gibbons, and Joe Bonamassa sprinkled throughout the album. Still Climbing also boasts a substantial slate of memorable guests, but as before, the true star of the proceedings remains West himself.
“Dying Since The Day I Was Born” is a heavy rock music masterpiece lucratively loaded with the fiery guitar and gritty vocals that Leslie’s fans have come to expect. The distressing lyrics, akin to those on most of these cuts, are classic blues-telling in a concise manner that chronicles life’s troubles. Mark Tremonti, whose current group is Alter Bridge and was in Creed teams with West for a satisfying guitar workout. Like Leslie West, Tremonti has a signature series of guitars (the PRS Tremonti Tribal) to his credit. It is a great opening cut that helps establish the hard times theme prevalent on the majority of the new songs.
“I wanted Mark to play on this cut on the album asnd I thought this song was perfect for his style. I am honored that he agreed to do it.” ~ Leslie West
The second song is entitled “Busted, Disgusted Or Dead,” and features master guitar slingers Leslie West and Johnny Winter trading slide licks over a sledge-hammer beat. Leslie’s solemn vocals work well, and the rhythm section of Mike “Metal” Goldberg on drums and Rev. Jones on bass prove tight and true. I yearn for Leslie and Johnny to finally team up for an entire album worth of blues; they fit together like tongue and grooved wood.
“Having toured with Johnny and played and jammed with Johnny…. To finally have him on a cut on my album is fantastic.” ~ Leslie West
One of the few non-original songs, “Fade Into You,” is a song taken from the Nashville TV show. It is a plaintive blues number with Leslie’s primary vocal less gritty that usual. His lead guitar is a true entity of exquisiteness as it gently weeps so beautifully. David “Squiggy” Biglin, a presence on Unusual Suspects, provides the Hammond B-3 organ and the strings which greatly enhance the song’s atmosphere.
“I wish I wrote this song! I heard this song on the TV show Nashville. It’s got everything I love in a song!” ~ Leslie West
The menacing “Not Over You At All” features Arno Hecht blowing some killer saxophone as the rhythm section plays an ominous beat. To say this song grows on you is a major understatement. Leslie wails on guitar in addition to giving a spine chilling impassioned vocal treatment to this winning cut.
“Arno Hecht from the Uptown Horns plays sax on this track. We would like to dedicate this track to his daughter Ava who died recently. She would be very proud of him……This is my favorite song.” ~ Leslie West
The affecting “Tales Of Woe” begins with slow Spanish Flamenco style guitar work and has West speak-singing some bitter life lyrics (“And the wounds that hurt the most are the ones you cannot see”). Although it’s a short song filled with mass regret, it quite effectively showcases some of West’s unparalleled guitar mastery.
“We decided to keep this one stripped down and bare, just like the lyrics….I played slide and acoustic and Squigg played some acoustic too.” ~ Leslie West
Vocalist Dee Snider of Twisted Sister and reality TV fame guests on “Feeling Good” and the pairing proves to be a good combination. The two singers trade verses seamlessly. The song also features some very vert nice keyboard work by Squigg Biglin. This song, a standard written in part by Anthony Newley, is a reinvented big departure from the jazz-tinged versions made famous by Nina Simone and also covered by Traffic.
“I’ve known Dee for years and I’ve also known how good he could sing. I am so glad he could join me on this track. He did a hell of a job.” ~ Leslie West
The song “Hatfield Or McCoy” contains some rudimentary lyrics, but is fully saved by Leslie’s earthy guitar and the conviction of his vocal. The song is also set apart from the remainder of Still Climbing by the inclusion of the female backing vocals of Elaine Caswell. The lyrics do not chronicle the Hatfield and McCoy feud; instead they ask “are you man or are you boy” and address how one handles it when life knocks you down. West himself had a major life trauma in 2011 when he lost the lower portion of his leg to complications from Type II Diabetes. He bounces back exultantly delivering perhaps the best album of his career with Still Climbing.
“Listen, everybody gets knocked down in life, but how you choose to get up is totally up to you. I see soldiers, man, double amputees; they’ve got it a lot worse than me. It’s just a good thing it wasn’t my hand, you know? But it’s not a pity party for me here, believe me. I’ve gone through some life-changing things, but I just wanted to make an album that continued on sound-wise, production-wise, song-wise, from the last one. I’m really happy with the way it came out. The songs seem better, and I’m really proud of it.”
Percy Sledge’s classic soul-stirrer “When A Man Loves A Woman” is expertly served up with shared lead vocals and guitar leads by Leslie West and Jonny Lang. When listening to the song on headphones Leslie’s guitar is heard by your left ear as Jonny Lang’s occupies your right one. I’ve always loved this song, and I must admit that I love this soulful rendition also.
“Long Red” is performed with brother Larry West Weinstein on bass guitar. Larry had accompanied Leslie long ago in The Vagrants. One of my favorite Mountain tunes, the classic song begins with the familiar cheerful calliope keyboards. Leslie still plays “Long Red” live in his shows, and this new take is a bit heavier than the original which appeared on his first solo LP Leslie West Mountain. Its inclusion on Still Climbing makes an inspired addition to this great assembly of songs.
Youthful, yet richly accomplished guitarist Dylan Rose lends his hand to “Don’t Ever Let Me Go.” A locomotive hard rock stampede of a song, it is full of guitar shredding memorable riffs, taking a “take-no-prisoners” type of stance guaranteed to get your head nodding and fist pumping with fervor.
The album closes with “Rev Jones Time” which is an notable solo bass guitar interpretation of a snippet of the Wizard Of Oz classic “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” It provides a nice slow down from the previous song. It is a song which always brings back fond memories of my meeting Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship virtuoso violinist Papa John Creech long ago and him playing my request of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” in his set that evening at an intimate downtown Las Vegas lounge.
A pinnacle moment in Leslie West’s life occurred when Leslie got married to his sweetheart Jenni in 2009. She had a hand in co-writing six songs on Still Climbing, up from the single one she snared on Unusual Suspects. Her participation, I believe, encourages Leslie to deliver such uncompromising enthusiasm on this disc. West is locked firmly in his element here, offering raw nuggets of wisdom drawn from his life’s journey. The CD title itself is motivational fuel that teaches all to continue striving to reach their peak and not be stagnant. On Still Climbing Leslie West and his talented friends deliver muscular guitar sounds at every turn, making this release a guitar lover’s dream. With its musical statement it furthers this legend’s impressive legacy.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. He can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com