Leslie West – Soundcheck

Variety and originality – plus a few star guests – help ex-Mountain man stand out

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If his 2013 album Still Climbing saw a revitalised Leslie West showing a new lease of life after losing a leg to diabetes, kicking methadone and beating a bout of bladder cancer, then this curiously eclectic but often enjoyably unpredictable follow-up suggests there’s plenty of creative life in the old dog yet.

As with that set, there’s an eye- catching line-up of collaborators here, from the guitar licks of Brian May and Peter Frampton to Jack Bruce’s bass and Bonnie Bramlett’s formidable voice, but the songs unmistakably take top billing. And even if they’re originally someone else’s – six of the 11 tracks are covers – West does an admirable job of putting his own sonic stamp on them.

‘Warning: Risk Of Electric Shock While Listening’, claims a mock- disclaimer on the back of the sleeve, and we certainly get an invigorating crackle of static from the first few tracks. ‘I been left by the roadside to die,’ snarls the now 70-year-old West on the opening track, and although it starts with an electronic keyboard pulse, the electric slide blues that soon kick in are as gritty and guttural as anything he’s done. And when his band get their ZZ Top on for the lascivious boogie grunt of Here For The Party, it’s a thrilling sound.

This sort of rough and ready fare will surely please West’s core audience, but if that suggests that Soundcheck will be a fairly straightforward collection of blues-rock stompers, the musical equivalent of comfort food, then we’re in for a surprise or three. Sure, the Whitesnake-esque Empty Promises/Nothing Sacred and the rollicking southern rock romp of Going Down sound homegrown in his natural bar-room habitat, and he always sounds like he’s having a ball. Brian May’s fret-frying contribution on the latter track doesn’t do it any harm either.

But in contrast, the dazzling acoustic folk picking on A Stern Warning could easily have graced Led Zeppelin III, while his minor- key acoustic reading of Jimmie Davis’ country standard You Are My Sunshine takes things a tone bleaker than even the Johnny Cash version, turning what has often sounded a saccharine lullaby back into the bitter-sweet heartbroken lament the full lyric always revealed it to be. Peter Frampton’s sublimely expressive soloing only enhances the sense of reinvention.

It’s arguably the most successful of several covers featured here. The gospel-ish take on Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready and a Bonnie Bramlett duet on Stand By Me make for pleasant listening, but they’re slightly too close to MOR territory to really get your pulse racing. A frankly bizarre bass-and-guitar instrumental reading of Eleanor Rigby then follows, at which point you wonder if West’s admirable determination to experiment could have been the subject of some more judicious editing.

But that’s the only real wrong step this album takes, and when it closes immediately afterwards with a grimy, lo-fi live recording of West and Jack Bruce prowling through Spoonful you’re equally glad that he didn’t play it safe. If you can’t take chances in your eighth decade on the planet, when the hell can you?

Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock