Click Here to read the Alvin Lee obituary.
In the summer of 1968, America was starting to hear about a new blues movement exploding in England, primarily in the hipster clubs of London. Riding the wave of the worldwide success of the Rolling Stones, groups with raw sound and power such as The Yardbirds, The Animals, and Eric Clapton with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers were avidly embraced. Savoy Brown became a college radio smash.
These Brits were applying variations of the blues form to contemporary culture, and creating vibrant, direct songs. The whole English scene was dynamic and exposed a generation to the music of American blues masters including Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and the entire group of legendary Chicago purists. These British Groups channeled the American blues into an exciting format that was both explosive and relevant to an entirely new audience in America.
Out of this kinetic setting, Ten Years After burst onto the scene, featuring one of the most dynamic, flash guitarists to ever emerge from of the British scene. Certainly, Terry Reed, Mick Abrahams, and Taste also had emerged as guitar powerhouses around the same time, but Alvin Lee was the complete package; a lead guitarist/lead singer with classic good looks; blazing guitar speed; and that rare, key component – taste. He could play cleaner and faster than any rock guitarist of his time, but he had the keen musical perception to insert strategically placed pauses just long enough to catch life and embrace the listener before blazing down the fingerboard.
In 1968, when Ten Years After formed in England, America was ripe and ready for British blues, hungry for the latest group with blue-based style echoing the early work of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Ten Years After hit the charts with its live album, Undead, recorded at the famous Klooks Kleek in London.
The album absolutely dripped with excitement, and college FM radio immediately embraced its sound. Lee was a gifted flash guitarist who had a real feel for the blues structure. His virtuoso guitar approach was dazzling, and he could immerse himself in the form so completely that his vocal howls echoed the backstreets of Chicago.
Ten Years After was composed of four gifted musicians – with Alvin Lee, Chick Churchill on the Hammond B-3, Leo Lyons on bass, and Ric Lee on drums. The group was tight, focused, and the ideal launching pad for Lee’s gifts. On Undead, they tear into “Woodchoppers Ball” with intense, spellbinding ferocity and determination. The band flies with such determination that the listener can feel the energy that must have radiated in the club on recording night. Lee had absolute command as his fluid, slick guitar lines fly over the driving rhythm. No sappy sell-the-group pop songs here – this record is a testament to speed and artistry. The lyrical “Summertime” reflects the scope of Lee’s expressive range, as does the album’s version of the now legendary “I’m Goin’ Home.”
In August of ’69, I was 17 and living in upstate New York. We started hearing radio reports of a gathering down in Bethel, where a large rock festival was scheduled for later that week. We couldn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of the original Woodstock Festival at Yasgar’s Farm.
As Friday approached and the reports of freeway closures became more frequent, it was clear that this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. My parents also made it clear to me that I was not to even think about going! Without a pause over that small detail, I managed to convince an older member of the band I was playing with at the time to drive us to the concert – and we were off before my parents realized where we were heading.
We arrived Saturday morning and had to park on a side road cluttered with “abandoned” cars. We soon joined the river of 500,000 people ambling into the woods and meadow near the main stage. Striding up the dirt walkway, we stepped over the perimeter fence, which had been trampled when the crowd declared the event a “free” concert (as a result, I still have my ticket!). Making my way to a tower on stage right, I saw all the groups that afternoon, including The Incredible String Band, Santana, and Joe Cocker. Everyone was high and happy to be there; I remember someone singing Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
As darkness fell, the announcer called, “Ladies and Gentleman… Ten Years After!” And I was swept up in a classic rock and roll moment.
In the cool, dark evening, the band blazed! Lee mesmerized everyone; he didn’t have to do anything but focus those blues the way he wanted to. No smashing of amps, no running around. He had the power, and he used it. In the huge Woodstock setting, Ten Years After transported us all to a place where only music lived – everything else was blurred and irrelevant.
After all their work in small clubs, Ten Years After was able to create music with tremendous inward power. With the Hammond pounding out the chords, and the rhythm section locked in the groove, the charismatic Lee had the skill to draw everyone in, and share their magic circle of sound.
With that performance, Ten Years After had arrived. For me, the highlight of the festival came when Lee blazed into the intro of “I’m Goin Home,” before the entire band drove the song to the heavens.
What made the band’s performance so powerful was its complete command of the blues, and the sincerity in its presentation. These weren’t “posers” cashing in on the latest fad. They were a dedicated group whose love of the blues was evident in every note they played. They locked into a song and it moved! Lee rode the train in total control of his instrument, playing faster and cleaner than ever, then at just the right moment, he’d slow down and insert a slight pause, leaving the audience gasping at the push/pull! This contrast made “I’m Goin Home” the band’s most powerful showpiece. As Lee’s guitar fireworks and voice blared into the surrounding hills.
Looking back, I don’t know if it was the simplicity of their style or their intensity, but Ten Years After succeeded in becoming a highlight of that wonderful moment that was Woodstock. Their live, raw power connected the audience. The combination of the expressive Hammond B-3 under the searing guitar lines has since become a blues standard.
But on this night, Alvin Lee’s slashing stop-and-go phrasing was magical. He kept his eyes closed tightly as he soloed, and you could imagine that he was transfixed, floating somewhere between the Woodstock stage and the smoky blues stages in London. Time and space failed to exist as his music dragged us all into that special place where only the most gifted musicians and artists can go. And in the darkness, half a million people went along for the ride.
This article originally appeared in VG May 2002 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.