Esoteric have a well-deserved reputation for digging up forgotten gems from the back-catalogue and remastering them brilliantly. They’ve once again hit the jackpot here with a fascinating six CD set covering Snowy White’s early solo career. The set spans the six studio albums from 1983’s debut album White Flames through to 1994’s Highway To The Sun, thus earning the subtitle An Anthology 1983-1994. The six studio albums are supplemented by a generous helping of B-sides and rarities to make this a superb testimony of the artist during this period.
To put this set of albums in context, White launched his solo career after he had already made his name, firstly as an in-demand session musician for top artists (including playing with Pink Floyd on the Animals and Wall tours) before stepping into the limelight replacing Gary Moore in Thin Lizzy for the Chinatown and Renegade albums. In many ways, these six albums are the most varied and interesting part of his career and they chart out both his musical development and his ongoing battle between his love of the blues and the demands of the record labels to write more mainstream commercial music. We are so used to our heroes selling out to become more commercial but as we will see, White did the exact opposite mid-way through this period.
For the first first album, entitled White Flames, White brought in long-time friends Richard Bailey on drums and Kuma Harada on bass. To today’s listeners the album might appear to be a strange mix of styles: rhythm and blues, funk, touches of jazz and reggae. In reality, for musicians of that time it was natural to absorb and mix those styles in a way that is sadly lacking today. It makes for an interesting cocktail. As a song-writer, White seems to be trying to find his way and a number of songs don’t quite click as a result. Nevertheless, the quality of White’s guitar playing really makes up for any shortcomings. The instrumental The Journey is the highlight of the album for me and showcases both the mellow and the rocking side of White’s repertoire perfectly. Even a pleasant song like At The Crossroads is graced by some really fine blues guitar which brings it up to a different level. This album also contains Bird Of Paradise, a top ten hit at the time and the song with which White is indelibly linked. It still sounds as magical today as it did all those years ago. Interestingly, the excellent booklet that accompanies the box set reveals that the basic track for Bird Of Paradise had been put down back in 1978 when White had access to Pink Floyd’s studio for a day.
One year later, with the same backing artists, White released the eponymously titled second solo album. The songs are a little bit longer are more thoughtfully crafted. While the sound his not significantly changed from the debut album, there is a tendency towards more pop or rock-oriented tracks including the excellent Long Summer Days with its leisurely reggae lilt and the slightly bombastic but still excellent ballad Peace on Earth. The original LP closed with emotionally charged guitar playing backed only by strings in the nine-minute instrumental, When I Arise, credited to the band despite it being a reinterpretation of English classical composer Vaughan Williams’s piece entitled Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. There are a generous additional seven bonus tracks on this CD. Amongst these, there are two great bluesy instrumentals: Good Question, which was the original B-side to Land Of Freedom; and Muddy Fingers, which was the B-side to That Certain Thing (which made it onto the next album).
It was three years later before the next album, That Certain Thing, was released. From the opening notes of For You – a minor chart success two years earlier – you sense that White is trying to tick all the boxes that make for commercial success. The rhythm and blues elements have all but disappeared and there is a very mainstream AOR feel to the album. Tracks are often coated in synthesizers, as per the habit of the time in the mid-1980s, and this makes it the one album in this box set that you can date easily. Unless you’re a fan of that 80s sound then like me you might find this album a mixed bunch. The understated title track with its hypnotic rhythm and dreamy saxophone is a wonderful song, as is the laid back and very catchy I’ll Be Holding On but some of the more commercial efforts wear a bit thin. Despite this commercial bent, you can’t keep a good guitarist down though. Take the track This Old Heart Of Mine where we get four minutes of sentimental Rod Stewart style pop before White manages to sneak in a fabulous short solo at the end.
After That Certain Thing, something had to give. Perhaps surprisingly it was the commercial side that was ditched in 1988’s Change My Life, released under the band name Snowy White Blues’ Agency. That band name gave a big hint that this was going to be blues music. But, this album isn’t the blues-rock of classics like Mistreated that many of us grew up with but instead this is the real blues: the type played in a dark seedy bar in the middle of some lonely highway in Mississippi! A song like Woke Up This Morning is played almost identically to the original almost upbeat B.B. King version – and light years away from the heavy 12 bar blues of the well-known rock interpretation by Nazareth. Just over half of the tracks are old blues standards. White had provided competent vocals on previous solo albums but here he wisely brought in an experienced blues singer in Graham Bell (previously with Brian Davison’s Every Which Way amongst others). The White-penned tracks mimic this same genuine blues style with the exception of the title track which does take a more standard blues-rock approach. Comparing this album to That Certain Thing there’s a staggering difference. I’m not sure if anyone in the history of rock has ever released two so different albums one after the other! It was certainly a brave and principled choice by White and one you have to give him credit for.
Having got that out of his system. the covers of the old classics were dropped for next year’s Open For Business, again recorded with the Blues Agency band line-up. We are still in traditional blues territory here but a more modern rock-based sound also emerges. Standout tracks include Blues On Me (with wailing harmonica as if from a Serge Leone movie), the bluesy ballad When You Broke Your Promise, and Land Of Plenty which has some great soloing from White. It’s not just those three songs though. There’s consistently high quality throughout this excellent album and you can sense that White has matured, is at ease, and is creating music that he loves.
After a five year hiatus, White returned with Highway To The Sun in 1994. Each of the songs is recorded with a different set of musicians and includes three other legendary British guitarists. Firstly there’s Chris Rea who plays on the title track, an infectiously upbeat track similar in style to Rea’s own Road To Hell (one wonders whether the song title deliberately echoes the Rea song too). Secondly, we have David Gilmour playing lead guitar on Love, Pain And Sorrow, which has a curious almost spoken vocal part over a repetitive bass theme. Gilmour puts in a good solo, interleaving with harmonica(!) before exchanging licks with White himself. Lastly, we have Gary Moore playing on Keep on Working. It’s a nine minute track with the first half taken up by a slow bluesy introduction with saxophone prominent before it launches into an instrumental section where Moore lets loose in impressive fashion. While the listener’s attention will naturally gravitate to those three heavy-duty collaborations, the two tracks that stood out for me were the brilliantly atmospheric The Time Has Come, crowned by another inspired White solo, and the gorgeous ballad, Can’t Find Love, again with achingly beautiful guitar playing.
This is a really satisfying box set to listen to. It charts the career of White from those first tentative steps as a solo artist through to embracing his love of the blues and finally emerging into his fully mature blues-rock style which has marked his output since. It is a fascinating journey, full of musical twists and turns but always permeated by his soulful guitar playing. This box set is a great way to discover or to reacquaint yourself with these albums and to celebrate the career of one of Britain’s great guitarists.