Leslie West gets the Blues

By  Peter Lindblad

An angry Leslie West makes for a loud, rattlesnake-mean guitarist, and that rage, along with other aspects of his personality, is palpable in some of the blues records he’s done on the side in recent years.

“When I get mad, it makes me play a certain way,” explains West, the legendary guitarist for the proto-metal powerhouse Mountain. “I can hear the different emotions when I play and sing. There’s soft parts, and then there’s loud, demonstrative parts, and I can tell that when I hear a certain section in some of the songs, and it makes me think of how I attacked it.”

LeslieLivePhoto.jpgNot as well known as his work with Mountain, at least in the U.S., West’s blues outings — which include such titles as Blues To Die For (2003), Dodgin’ The Dirt (1993), Blue Me (2006) and Got Blooze (2005) on Blues Bureau International, via Shrapnel Records  — lurch from introspective, soulful passages to the boisterous, Southern-fried boom that made West famous. Having veteran drummer Aynsley Dunbar (John Mayall, UFO, David Bowie) provide a strong backbeat helps fortify covers of such standards as John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” “The Thrill Is Gone” and Big Joe Williams’ “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” West and Dunbar hooked up through Shrapnel Records owner Mike Varney. The two work by phone.

“I wasn’t even around while we did some of the tracks,” says West. “He did the tracks in, I think, Las Vegas, and he sent me the songs, and then I have to put my guitar on it — rhythm and lead — and sing and try to make ‘em sound like we all ‘em in the same take.”

For West, the chance to step outside his Mountain persona and sink his teeth into the blues he grew up on is one he relishes, and there is an audience for his reinterpretations. “It wasn’t something I could do with Mountain,” says West. “Believe it or not,  all (the blues records) made the charts in England, you know, especially Blues To Die For. It seems like there’s a bigger audience for real blues stuff than classic-rock now.”

The blues always has provided the foundation for West’s music. “I just liked the way the guitar — the notes, the scales, the blues scales — sounded,” he says. “It was just what I was into, being a Jewish kid from Queens (New York City) who had the blues.”

Life, and its myriad problems, give the blues its universal appeal, and West understands that as well as anybody. “You wake up in the morning, and you can’t find your wallet, or you got beat up the night before, or your girlfriend left you … who knows? Even if the tire on your Mercedes is flat, it gives you blues. I just love the way the thing sounds. The more you get into the lyrics, it all makes sense somehow.”

But to West, initally, doing a blues album didn’t make much sense. It was Varney, a former columnist for Guitar Player, who persuaded him to give it a go and has helped produce works like Got Blooze and Blues To Die For. “He loves guitar, and I think he especially loves blues guitar. He’s in a time warp, Mike.”

The same can’t be said of West, whose career has undergone a rebirth thanks to hip-hop kingpins Jay-Z and Kanye West. Jay-Z used a sample of West’s guitar from the song “Dreams Of Milk And Honey” — off 1969’s Leslie West Mountain, considered to be Mountain’s first record — for his hit “99 Problems.” And Kanye West used the melody for “Long Red,” also from Leslie West Mountain, for two songs on his recent smash LP Graduation.

Of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” Leslie says, “Oh, I loved it, man,” and he ended up sampling his own guitar for a song on the most recent Mountain record, Masters Of War. As for his blues records, a new collection of West’s Shrapnel LPs is available at www.shrapnelrecords.com. Though he once did a blues number with the trio West, Bruce and Laing, formed with Cream bassist Jack Bruce in the early ’70s, called “My Shoes Are Dirty” — with Bruce on piano — he’s never done recorded any blues with Mountain. These blues records put West in a different state of mind.

“It just makes think of 30 years ago, 40 years ago, before Mountain,” says West. “I just try to think of myself on a porch somewhere in Muscle Shoals, Ala.”

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