Being an Albert Lee fan can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. Because, even though he’s invariably busy, touring behind somebody or playing on someone’s record, his jam-packed schedule doesn’t allow much time for him to pursue his own solo career. His self-titled 1982 album (produced by Rodney Crowell) is a classic, and his two all-instrumental projects for MCA (Speechless and Gagged But Not Bound, in 1986 and ’87, respectively) provided plenty of bang for your buck. And lately he’s been fronting his own rocking outfit, Albert Lee & Hogan’s Heroes, with two fantastic self-released CDs, but their gigs have been exclusively in Europe.
Thankfully, this album displays more than just his dazzling chops; it showcases his expressive vocals and knack for putting his own stamp on a great song. Those are traits he shares with Emmylou Harris, so it’s fitting that this set is made up of songs associated with his former boss. The material covers most of her Hot Band years, including songs pre-dating Lee’s induction into the band (when James Burton had the gig) and ones she recorded after he vacated the lead chair (replaced by Frank Reckard).
There’s some hot pickin’, to be sure, but what stands out most is Albert’s taste. Like steel legend Buddy Emmons, who trades licks with Albert on six of the 10 cuts, Lee never overpowers a song’s essence and turns things into a notefest. The one exception might be the instrumental rendition of “Luxury Liner,” possibly the most famous workout from his years with Emmylou. For this outing, the song is transformed into the CD’s only instrumental, with Vince Gill and Brad Paisley swapping choruses with the master. Unfortunately, the song doesn’t translate into an especially strong instrumental, and Gill and Paisley are too strongly influenced by Albert’s style to offer much contrast as the baton is passed back and forth.
At the other end of the spectrum, Albert’s beautiful, simple lines on “If I Needed You” (a duet with Maura O’Connell) couldn’t be more appropriate and elegant. Likewise his deft, ornamental acoustic work on “‘Til I Gain Control Again.” Even the extended ending on “Born To Run” is free of showboating; you get the feeling Albert and the band are letting it roll because they’re enjoying the groove too much to stop.
Perhaps the biggest compliment is when a guitarist of Lee’s jaw-dropping caliber can play a song and elicit a reaction like “What a great song,” not, “Did you hear what that guy played on guitar?” Heartbreak Hill is filled with just such great renditions of great songs.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.