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Stripped-down performances can prove less is more for music

Studio trickery, cranked-up amps and sheer enthusiasm can hide many musical sins. But the real test? If the music stands up to a stripped-down performance.

By Ken Sharp

It's a long way from imitation to innovation. Let’s face it, as a guitar player it’s much easier to copy someone’s licks or solos; that’s all about possessing the proper technique.

But the real trick is developing your own voice on the instrument that sets you apart from the wannabes and copycats. Queen guitarist Brian May is one of those rare six-string practitioners who sounds like no one else. As evidenced by his spectacular reign with Queen and as a solo artist, he has rightfully earned the title of guitar hero. With six pence British coin in hand serving as a plectrum, May’s guitar of choice was his trademark red electric guitar, “The Red Special,” which was lovingly constructed by the guitarist and his father over a two-year period, using only hand tools. May developed a tasteful, fluid, sweeping orchestral style of playing that married classical and rock influences. The expansive sound he developed was akin to a violin and guitar melded together. Listen to the compact, intricately crafted solo on “Killer Queen.” Or the meticulously precise and soaring lead guitar lines on “Bicycle Race.” Or the nasty power-chord crunch of “Tie Your Mother Down.” And even those three diverse examples barely scratch the surface of his work.

And while he’s definitely known for his work with Queen, May has explored other musical territory, too. “The Candlelight Concert: Live at Montreux 2013” DVD + CD set (Eagle Rock Entertainment) pairs the gifted guitarist with Broadway vocalist Kerry Ellis.

Candlelight Concert Brian May and Kerry Ellis

Recorded in July 2013 at the Stravinski Auditorium, the stripped-down performance features the duo (and occasional keyboardist accompanist) tackling choice material. There are covers (Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” and The Beatles’ “Something”); standards (“The Way We Were” and “Born Free”); a smattering of Queen jewels, including the well-known songs “Somebody to Love,” “We Will Rock You,” “Love of My Life,” “’39,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love;” deeper Queen cuts, “Life is Real” and “No One But You (Only the Good Die Young).” May also delivers with “Last Horizon,” a dazzling solo electric guitar composition culled from his 1992 solo album, “Back to the Light.”

Given that so many of the featured songs are part of the Queen canon that was once ruled by Freddie Mercury’s incomparable voice, it’s fair to wonder whether Ellis can do them justice. But she is in fine voice, lending a crystalline intimacy to the material. May also contributes confident lead vocals on several tracks. And judging by the uproarious audience reception, the fans concurred.

GOLDMINE: How did this project come about?
BRIAN MAY: Well, this project evolved over quite a long period. Kerry and I have been working together for 12 years off and on. We’d done work together when we’ve had spare moments, and we did a big tour to start with, strangely enough, with a big band plus an orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. And then we got involved with more recording. We discovered we enjoyed stripping down things to their essence and just doing voice and acoustic guitar, and by doing them in that fashion, very simply, somehow the songs seemed to get bigger. We also had the experience of going out to Africa and playing in the jungle spontaneously, and we enjoyed that. So the idea came: “Why don’t we try going out as just the two of us in an intimate and informal style and put on a concert?” We took candles with us so it had an intimate atmosphere, and it worked.

Brian May Kerry Ellis Candlelight Concert

The only pyrotechnics or light show you should expect to see at a Brian May and Kerry Ellis performance is whatever is coming from the candles onstage.

GM: Kerry, what’s it been like for you to interpret this body of work, much of which was sung by a male vocalist, whether it’s Freddie Mercury, George Harrison or Steve Walsh of Kansas?

KERRY ELLIS: It’s been quite fun. A lot of our song choices come from the simple fact that we just enjoy performing the songs. It’s not very calculated; it’s not deeper than that. They’re just good songs, and we enjoy performing them. For me personally, getting the chance to sing some of those real classics has been such a joy. You don’t get to perform songs like these often, so it’s been great fun. Singing “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas is one of my favorite moments of the show, because it’s such a simple song. As a singer, you’re usually pushed to your limits to belt it out as hard or as high as you can, or to do something as passionate as you can. To be able to sing these really simple songs is a real pleasure, because it doesn’t often happen.

GM: By presenting the songs in such a stripped-down fashion, it shines the spotlight on how good all of the songs are in their most skeletal form.
KERRY ELLIS: Yeah, we talk about that in the show. We talk about how a good song can be played in many different ways and still be a good song. Good songs can be done with an orchestra or done with just a guitar and a voice and still work. It still has the same impact and power, however it’s performed.

GM: When a live show is an overwhelming success, there’s a communion between artist and audience. Speak about that connection.
BRIAN MAY: The reason I wrote “We Will Rock You” and Freddie (Mercury) wrote “We Are the Champions” is we enjoyed having that two-way interaction with an audience, and that was quite new in those days. These days, it’s the norm for people to do that and involve the crowd. But back in the ’70s, if you look at the context, most rock groups would go out and play really loud to an audience who would listen but not really react that much. They wouldn’t really give back that much. I guess we were lucky that Queen had a very interactive audience. And with songs like “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” we encouraged their participation and that was a joy. When you achieve that connection with your audience during a performance, the concert becomes very much a two-way thing, rather than a one-way thing.

Brian May Kerry Ellis Candlelight Concert

Brian May’s beloved Red Special guitar is not the star of his shows with Broadway singer Kerry Ellis. The pair present stripped-down versions of songs where they rely mostly on acoustic guitar. But May’s no stranger to acoustic guitar. He used one to write the Queen rocker “Tie Your Mother Down,” after all.

So with Kerry and me, it’s almost like we’re taking it a step further. Kerry speaks about how a song benefits without having too much going on. In fact, if you look at a song, it’s words and it’s a tune and it’s a chord structure behind it, which gives it context and sort of gets your emotions going. You can do that with just a voice and six strings on a guitar, and it’s a great challenge to do it. That way, you’re able to capture the essence of a song. There’s no clutter, and there’s nothing getting in the way, and there’s no needless ornamentation.

One of the things that I love about Kerry is she does not do ornamentation for its own sake. She sings from her heart. She speaks about singing the song as it was written, and that’s what I try to do as well. We love it, and the audiences connect with it, no doubt. They can hear the voice crystal clear, and they can hear my guitar crystal clear. I also have a theory: People can’t listen to two things at once (laughs). They can only listen to one thing at a time. We’re all paranoid about keeping things that simple, and I’ve been through that with Queen being just a four-piece. Over time, we thought we needed to flesh out our sound with keyboards. And then when I went out on my own I thought, “I must have a rhythm guitar,” because if I stop playing rhythm, the bottom will fall out of the sound. But it’s actually not true.

GM: As a guitar player, you are a true original. No one plays like you or has a sound like yours. Discuss the inspiration and influence behind the manner in which you approach guitar, specifically the manner in which you orchestrate parts and solos.
BRIAN MAY: I like my guitar to be a voice and sing. People say my playing sounds like an orchestra, but it’s that old thing — it’s the degree to which I can bluff (laughs). People say, “How do you do all that multi-tracking?” And I don’t, really. I do have the delay thing, which I work with. It’s really all about being connected with one channel. Kerry has her larynx, and I have just my few millimeters of fingers on the string, and that’s your voice. I was inspired in the early days by people like Hank Marvin, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. To me, they’re guitar players who have an instant voice, and you know that voice. When they’re playing, you feel it, and they have something to say. I always wanted to do the same thing with my guitar playing.

GM: So many guitar players sound like a knockoff of someone else. When did you realize you had found your own voice on the instrument?
BRIAN MAY: I always hoped I had a voice on guitar; I dreamed of having a distinctive voice on guitar. Going a long way back, in terms of my playing, I hit a point where I remember thinking that maybe this is a new direction for me. Sometimes you just have to keep doing things to get noticed. Same thing goes for Kerry and me; people are beginning to realize what we can do. They have to give themselves permission to like something and get into it. You just need to keep doing what you love and hope it will get noticed and embraced.

GM: For both of you, when did you come to realize that music could be a full-time career and no day job would ever be necessary?
KERRY ELLIS: For me, I don’t know if you’re ever comfortable to sit back and go, “Yes, this is it; I’ve made it” or “I’m comfortable right now.” As a performer and artist, you’re always striving for the next thing. I love what Brian and I are doing, and I’m constantly thinking, “OK, what’s next? When are we gonna do this again?” Or I’m thinking, “What’s the next level to this? Where do we take this?” What makes you a good artist is to keep trying to improve and keep getting better and moving on.

Queen toured with Mott the Hoople as a support act in England and then in the States. Ian Hunter was a sage old person, even in those days when he was young. We sat together one day and he asked, “Brian, how are you doing? Is this tour sitting well with you?” And I said, “I’m doing OK, but I’m finding it quite hard to be away from my home stock.” It was the first time I’d been away from home for a long time, and it was a long time. He looked at me and sort of put his chin in his hands and said “Brian, if you’re missing your home stock, you’re not cut out for this.” I thought, “Well, OK, maybe he’s right.” But inside me, I felt it was all worth it to be doing what I was doing with Queen because it was just magic. And it’s always been that way for me, so thank you, Ian. (Laughs.) That’s when I realized we were on our way and didn’t need to get a job like all of my other friends. I loved my home life, but I had to follow my dream. It was such an amazing opportunity to do something extraordinary, and that was the moment where it crystallized it for me.

GM: Kerry’s world of Broadway and the world of Queen are not far apart.
BRIAN MAY: Yes, our styles mesh very well together, and that’s why this works so well. Incidentally, we have a couple of new songs in the set now. Again, we’re doing simple songs that are beautiful. We added the song “So Sad” by The Everly Brothers to our set. That’s an iconic song for me, and it’s a big part of my childhood, and Kerry loves it, too. It gives us a chance to sing together, which is fun. There’s nothing to that song; it’s very simple. It’s just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, a little middle-eight, and then you’re done. But it’s just beautiful. It speaks from the heart, and it goes over really well. We have another one we do in the set, which is also not on the DVD. It’s the song “If I Loved You” from “Carousel.” Now, that’s not the world of rock and roll, but my God, it just works like a dream for us. A beautiful song is always a beautiful song.

GM: “Born Free” surprisingly works for a rock audience.
BRIAN MAY: Exactly. I feel very proud of that. I think most people would not have imagined that a song like “Born Free” would work for a rock audience. It was a song recorded by Matt Monro, and the attitude and atmosphere was all full of smiles. The way we do it, it’s full of anguish, because wildlife is now in a troubling state all around the world. “Born Free” no longer means, “Yippee! Isn’t everything great?” There was a hint of that in the original, but now because of the arrangement, it feels different. At my request, I actually got Don Black, who wrote the original words, to add a few lines, just to take it a little bit further. So I feel very happy about our version of that song.

GM: Kerry, what’s the song you look forward most to singing in the set?
KERRY ELLIS: Oh dear. It depends, really. I don’t think there’s anything on our set list that I don’t enjoy performing or singing. They’re all slightly different. “If I Loved You” is very passionate and quite sparse; I love doing that. But then I love singing “Dust in the Wind” because it’s just so simple and laid back for me, and Brian has a solo in the middle of it, which he might not find as relaxing (laughs). But I like the flow of the set and how I get to perform all different kinds of sides of myself. So there are different extremes within the set. It’s hard to pick one that I like doing the most, because I quite like them all (laughs).

Brian May Kerry Ellis

Kerry Ellis says she looks forward to performing Kansas’ ‘Dust In The Wind’ when she’s on tour with Brian May because of the song’s sheer simplicity.

GM: What have been the greatest challenges that have presented themselves to you working on this project? Was there any worry how it would be received by a rock audience?

BRIAN MAY: No, not at all. I was never worried about how it would go over with an audience. Honestly, there were no fears on my part; we had no expectations, really. People had seen Kerry do all the big musicals for a long time, and they’ve seen me in Queen do all the big shows. In the beginning when we started doing shows together, I’m sure the audience was thinking, “I wonder what they’re gonna do?” We just thought if we enjoy ourselves, and if we feel we can communicate in these songs, then the people will as well. And it just worked; the more we enjoy ourselves, the more the audience enjoys themselves.

GM: Being so familiar with Queen’s stomping rendition of “Tie Your Mother Down,” the acoustic version on the DVD/CD is quite startling and different. Was that song originally written on acoustic guitar?
BRIAN MAY: “Tie Your Mother Down” was written on acoustic guitar. I was in Tenerife, and I had a little guitar that I’d just bought in town. In those days, there weren’t mobile phones, so I was very much on my own and miles away from the nearest town. I was playing the guitar and came up with this riff and didn’t know what to do with it. I think that riff was inspired by Rory Gallagher, and I was playing my acoustic as if it were an electric.

The version I do with Kerry, we call “Country and Western,” but Country and Western people would probably be insulted (laughs). But it had that kind of relaxed feel. For me, it’s nice when it kicks into that intensity when I strap on an electric guitar halfway through and play the rest of it. We enjoy playing “Tie Your Mother Down.” All the songs we do, we do differently, and that’s one of the joys of working together. We’re under no constraints to do anything the way it’s ever been done before. It’s really nice and loose and happy.

GM: Songs have the miraculous ability to lift you up and deliver you through tough emotional times. What songs have helped get you through a bad period?
KERRY ELLIS: To perform “Tie Your Mother Down” at the end of the show is very uplifting for me personally, because it summarizes the show at the moment. It’s great fun. It’s a different twist on how the song is usually played, and that’s really uplifting for me personally.

I do need music to help me through. I love the song “Back On My Feet Again” by The Babys. It says I’m not beaten yet. I’m here standing; I will continue into the future, and I will not fall down. The other one that lifts me up from being depressed is the Foreigner song, “I Want to Know What Love Is.” That’s another great song. Lou Gramm was one of the great singers of our generation. GM