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18 in Motion Volume 21, Issue 5 September/October 2011

Leslie West has commanded one of the biggest, boldest electric guitar tones known to man, fromWoodstock, which introduced his group Mountain to the pages of music history, to his riveting new album, Unusual Suspects . His voice is even more recogniz-able – a powerful mix of honey and gravel that falls somewhere between Otis Redding and King Kong.

At age 65, West stands undiminished on Unusual Suspects , a proud mix of blues, rockers and ballads that puts his songwriting skills at the fore in tunes like the hard-rock-ing “Mississippi Queen” fashback “Mudfap Mama” and the sweet, soulful love song “You and Me.”

West’s title for the album was inspired by his handpicked roster of A-list six-string co-stars, which includes ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Slash, ex-Ozzy Osbourne foil Zakk Wylde, blues-rock frebrand Joe Bonamassa and L.A. session giant and Toto leader Steve Lukather. The other distinguished guest is drummer Kenny Aronoff, whose powerhouse style has made him a frst-call accomplice for John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart and many others. They also have deep musical and per-sonal connections to West. He and Mascot/ Provogue labelmate Lukather, who adds acoustic guitar to the piano-based boogie “One More Drink for the Road,” have been friends for decades. As for Gibbons, he and West met during ZZ Top’s frst major tour,

when Gibbons’ band got its big break opening for Mountain. Slash, of Velvet Revolver, Snakepit and Guns N’ Roses fame, has cited West as an infuence on his own brawny playing. Ditto for Wylde, who affectionately refers to West as “Dad.” And Bonamassa was so moved by West’s earlier recording of Willie Dixon and Eddie Boyd’s blues standard “Third Degree” that he requested they cut it again for Unusual Suspects .

The album was named Unusual Suspects because very rarely do you get an assem-blage of this pedigree of players on one album. West’s legacy as a musician was built by injecting rocket-fueled guitar into classic Mountain performances like “Mississippi Queen,” “Nantucket Sleighride” and “Theme From an Imaginary Western” – all still part of his live concerts. Several of his new songs, including Unusual Suspects’ opener “One More Drink For the Road” and “Legend,” were written by West’s longtime friend and former classmate, Joe Pizza.

Another unexpected spin is West’s take on Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out the Lights.” On

Unusual Suspects , West, Slash and Wylde weave a triple-threat of acoustic and electric guitars into the tune for a blend of ferocity and feeling unlike anything the song’s author ever imagined.

“Standing on Higher Ground,” which Gibbons brought into the studio, was completed with West and producer Fabrizio Grossi. The song is a highlight for West, who

shares, “Only Billy Gibbons can come up with an intro that sounds like Hendrix and ZZ Top combined at the hip.”

But despite its stellar guest turns, the heart and soul of Unusual Suspects lies with West’s own wildly original playing and singing. “When it comes to the guitar, I could never play fast, so I learned to make every note count – to be sure every lick has something to say. I believe in having a big sound and leaving space between notes; that space is like the point where the music stops in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It builds tension and raises the question, ‘What’s gonna happen now?’ Plus, I love to feel the speak-ers move the air. The heavy sound it takes to make that happen really does it for me.” West’s tonal awakening came when his frst group, soul-rock outft the Vagrants, opened for Cream in New York City and he heard the wall of sound generated by Eric Clapton’s Marshall amplifers. Hendrix was also an early infuence on his sonic sculpting.

As luck had it, West’s upstairs neighbor in the Manhattan apartment building where his family lived was Waddy Wachtel. Today, Wachtel is one of the world’s top session men. Back then, he was the guy who taught West to play and sold him his frst Les Paul Junior, the instrument West favored through his Mountain years. He currently plays a Leslie West signature model made by Dean Guitars.

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