Overall, a fine tribute to a man larger than life in more ways than one. RIP Leslie, you were a talent to behold.
A whole heap of material contained within two packages here, from former Mountain guitarist, the late (and decidedly great) Leslie West. It’s probably fair to say that, since the original dissolution of Mountain in the early ’70s, his career has never quite reached the same level of mainstream success, with his solo albums (of which there have been many) often flying under the radar of all but the most dedicated West Watchers. This is an injustice, however, as a listen to almost any of his recordings (and certainly any of the original Mountain output) reveals him to have been one of the most talented heavy rock / blues guitarists of his time. He was no slouch as a vocalist, either, with his mighty wounded-bear bellow always at its best when brilliantly contrasting with Felix Pappalardi’s beautifully melodic voice in those Mountain days. The first of these two sets, Five Originals, does exactly what it says on the tin, or the CD cover for that matter – it’s a reissue of five of his post-Mountain solo albums between 1975 and 2004, spread across three discs, with two albums apiece on the first two and another on the third. Let’s take a look at them.
The first surprising thing is that there is no room for West’s very first solo album, entitled Mountain, from 1969. Giving rise to the band’s name (and named for his famously considerable size), the album is highly regarded and gave rise to several Mountain songs such as Long Red, Dreams Of Milk And Honey and Blood Of The Sun, and featuring Pappalardi on it. It is often thought of as the ‘unofficial’ Mountain debut album, but one would imagine that licensing issues precluded its inclusion here. The first album included chronologically is 1975’s amusingly and self-deprecatingly titled The Great Fatsby, released shortly after Mountain had reformed and then split again within little more than a year. The second surprise is that this album isn’t actually the first one on the disc, with the following year’s Leslie West Band preceding it. Taking it in logical chronological order however, The Great Fatsby is an inconsistent yet often brilliant album. Opening with a rip-roaring take on the bluesy cover Don’t Burn Me, there is a tremendous version of House Of The Rising Sun, with West duetting on vocals with Dana Valery (oddly uncredited here) to great effect, and rearranging the song masterfully. Valery also duets on a splendid version of Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter, and there are good cracks as a pair of Free covers, Doctor Love and Little Bit Of Love, while the rocker High Roller is also a standout, as is the instrumental splendour of ESP. There are weak points, with I’m Gonna Love You Thru The Night and If I Still Had You as unimaginative as their titles, and a cover of The Stones’ Honky Tonk Women adding little to the original. Speaking of the Stones, the aforementioned High Roller earns massive interest points however, being a co-write along with Jagger and Richards themselves, a very rare thing indeed. In fact, Jagger appears on the album, though on guitar rather than vocals. All in all, a very good listen and a solid start to his relaunched solo career.
The follow up, 1976’s The Leslie West Band, recorded by the band of that name which he had by now formed – including Mick Jones on second guitar, ex of Spooky Tooth and later of Foreigner – is cut very much from the same cloth. Indeed, it is close in terms of quality, with arguably higher peaks but perhaps a touch more filler. Cream of the crop here is the guitar genius of Sea Of Heartbreak, which is so good that it seems a crime when it finishes after only three and a half minutes. West’s guitar here is something to behold. Close behind that is a brilliant rearrangement of The Beatles’ Dear Prudence, with it becoming obvious that West had a very underrated gift for a cover version. To that end, a great rendition of The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out Of This Place closes the album. There are a handful of rather ordinary bluesy rockers among the ten tracks, however, suggesting that more time was perhaps needed to work up new material. Still, there are enough great songs on these two albums to compile one absolutely killer set.
Fast forward now to 1988, with the album Theme, recorded with Jack Bruce on bass and vocals. Unsurprisingly given the title, Bruce’s song which Mountain made their own, Theme From An Imaginary Western, makes an appearance here, though despite Bruce’s excellent vocal, it cannot compete with Mountain’s own version. Similarly, live recordings of Red House and Spoonful pad things out rather, and despite standouts Talk Dirty, Motherload, I Ate It and a surprisingly well done if brief Love Me Tender, it’s the weakest of the five albums. 1989’s Alligator on the other hand often gets criticised, but I respectfully disagree as, despite being inarguably brief at a scant 30 minutes, it’s full of excellent tracks. The title track is an absolute stormer, as is opener Sea Of Fire and another instrumental Waiting For The F Change, while the version of I Put A Spell On You is very successful. Free get a look in again with The Stealer, while there is a bizarre three-minute melding of Hall Of The Mountain King and Theme From Exodus. If nobody expected that, they also never expected the closing rendition of hoary old chestnut Dream Lover to be changed inside out into a heartfelt ballad, in the best arrangement I’ve ever heard. Short maybe, but a great album for all that.
For the last album of the set we hurtle forward a full fifteen years to 2004 for the questionably titled Guitarded. In fact, in addition to the title, the cover of a ‘disabled sign’ wheelchair used holding a guitar make this one of those ‘did they know what they were thinking?’ moments. Had it been after Leslie lost his leg to diabetes it would have had a self-mocking humorous point, but is wasn’t. Still, that is of no consequence as the material here – all thirteen tracks of it , lasting a full 70 minutes or so (longer than any two of the others combined) – is to my mind without doubt the strongest here. Not only is the material top drawer almost without exception, but the playing is vital and fiery and the production vibrant and punchy. Highlights? Well, so many. The opening one-two of Allergic and Cross Cut Saw Blues, the guitar heroics of the seven-minute Stormy Monday, the insanely catchy prison-rocker The Cell, Dragon Lady and another seven minute plus guitar masterclass Third Degree. Ian Gillan turns up to sing Hang Me Out To Dry, while Imaginary Western appears again, in much better form, as a live cut. Born To Be Wild gets a radical but very effective makeover in true 21st century style, while The Beatles obscurity Old Brown Shoe (the B-side of The Ballad Of John And Yoko) is slowed down and extended. Best of all though, and the best track on this entire set, is the collaboration with Joe Bonamassa on the eight-minute blues masterclass If Wishes Were Nickels, with the pair trading guitar brilliance in a manner so good that it makes you want to stop and put the track right back to the start again – until The Cell starts up next, and you’re hooked in again. A great, and criminally neglected album, in part perhaps a victim of its own cover art and title.
The other release here, Got Live, is four discs containing live West shows from three different years. The first, from the UK in 1998, shows an older and more relaxed West in hilarious form as he jokes with the crowd (the part where he starts discussing Austin Powers is worth the admission price on its own), and there’s plenty of old Mountain material here for the fan. Blood Of The Sun, Imaginary Western, Dreams Of Milk And Honey, Never In My Life, Long Red, Silver Paper, Nantucket Sleighride and West’s own calling-card Mississippi Queeen are all here. All are excellent as well, with the sole exceptions of Imaginary Western, which suffers from the lack of Pappalardi, and Nantucket Sleighride, which sadly really doesn’t work without the keyboards which drive the classic riff, and also has West seemingly forgetting, or simply being careless with, the lyrics. It’s still good enough, as it is too good to ruin, but it is a disappointment. There’s a brilliant early version of The Cell, however, performed by West alone and still titled Cell 65, which is an absolute gem of a find. Back to 1994 next for a New York show on a disc entitled ‘New York State Of Mind’, which contains a stellar rendition of the song of that name as its arguable highlight. Otherwise the setlist is similar to 1998, and like that disc is well recorded. Both of these discs are of easily superior bootleg quality, and very entertaining. The third and fourth discs are from 1975, with Mick Jones in that Leslie West Band incarnation, and is a frustrating listen, as it contains probably the finest playing, with a wild, untamed feel crackling with energy, but is hampered by the poorest sound quality. Titled ‘Electric Ladyland Studios Part 1 and 2’, this is a misnomer, as only the first five tracks on Disc Three are recorded at a show played there, with eight more from a Detroit gig and four more from a couple of unidentified shows. Those first five tracks are the best here, with the slow, devious and enthralling version of Don’t Burn Me proving the best thing on the whole set. It blows the already impressive studio cut out of the water. Almost as good is the similarly lengthy version of the West, Bruce and Laing track Why Dontcha, which again smokes its studio counterpart. House Of The Rising Sun features some brilliant guitar heroics from both West and Jones. However, the Detroit show is dogged by decidedly bootleg sound quality, and is distracting despite some great playing. The four tracks at the end are better, soundwise, but two more renditions of Rising Sun, making four in total, is too much.
In summary, the Five Originals set is the one for the casual fan. Apart from Guitarded, the other albums are all either too patchy or too short to be recommended as stand-alone buys, but collected in this way they give a very healthy serving of exceptional music. The absolute best way of getting hold of this material, and certainly recommended. Got Live is much more for the dedicated fan, as the sometimes poor recording quality and sloppy execution of the likes of …Sleighride would probably test the uninitiated. The hard core fan will see past those drawbacks and find some great substance contained underneath, and so it is that demographic to which that one should be recommended.
Overall though, a fine tribute to a man larger than life in more ways than one. RIP Leslie, you were a talent to behold.