Leslie West: Soundcheck

Half a century in, the Mountain man shows he’s still at the peak of his game.

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Soundcheck – Leslie West’s 16th solo album, if we’re counting – comprises a smattering of originals and a fistful of well-chosen covers that neatly merges where West has been over the years, and where he’s going.

The man who, with Mountain, took us all on a Nantucket Sleighride has had a remarkable run as the decades roll on, positioning himself as a musician’s musician who also knows how to smash a stage to splinters with his fiery riffage. It’s an odd sort of below-the-radar fame, one where he can walk the city streets unmolested but gets mobbed whenever he strolls into a Guitar Center.

So it really goes without saying that six-string aficionados/fetishists will lap up West’s new star-spangled record like mother’s milk. After all, the Mountain man is an absolute legend, the great-great-great granddaddy of heavy blues, and one of the most effortlessly fluid players in operation. You’d have to be some kind of maniac to play the guitar and not readily accept West’s axe-wrangling dominance and worship at his fuzzy feet.

You’ve also got to applaud his choice of company. His last album, 2011’s Unusual Suspects, was rife with guest spots from heavy hitters like Slash, Zakk Wylde and Billy Gibbons, and the parade of stars continues here. Peter Frampton drops in on this one to help out on a wonderfully dreamy minor-key cover of You Are My Sunshine, Queen’s Brian May adds some lethal f irepower to the explosive Going Down, and the album ends with a positively nasty live take on Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, featuring West’s old West, Bruce & Laing bandmate, Cream bassist Jack Bruce.

But what if you don’t even play the guitar, don’t know or care what kind West plays, and just want some head-down, bottoms-up, dirty rock’n’roll to break your leash to? Well, he’s got the plebeians covered too. The snarly, slide guitar-driven opener Left By The Roadside To Die is a ferocious slice of hard-edged blues, Here For The Party is a hell-for-leather headbanger, and Empty Promises, Nothin’ Sacred is full-tilt desert-baked riff’n’roll.

Of course, not everything works. The spaghetti western-ed instrumental A Stern Warning – named after West’s long-time pal, US shock-jock Howard Stern – slows the whirlwind down to crawl, and his cover of Tracey Chapman’s Give Me One Reason fizzles out long before it’s over. But those are minor gripes, really.

Fifty years down the road, and Leslie West is still knockin’ them dead.

Ken McIntyre

Classic Rock contributor since 2003. Twenty Five years in music industry (40 if you count teenage xerox fanzines). Bylines for Metal Hammer, Decibel. AOR, Hitlist, Carbon 14, The Noise, Boston Phoenix, and spurious publications of increasing obscurity. Award-winning television producer, radio host, and podcaster. Voted “Best Rock Critic” in Boston twice. Last time was 2002, but still. Has been in over four music videos. True story.