Leslie West – Blues to Die For

Blues to Die For

Mountain had just one real hit – the two-and-a-half-minute blast of “Mississippi Queen” can still be heard on classic rock radio. And while it has a 12-bar structure, it isn’t a blues song.
In fact, a look at the Mountain catalog shows no real blues songs, but rather music that is quite sophisticated – a direct influence of producer-bassist Felix Pappalardi.
Lesie West, the guitarist and driving force behind Mountain, has released several albums since Mountain disbanded in the mid ’70s. With this album, though, he finally has a record in which he can take pride.
The album is marked by West’s first use of vintage gear in the studio since he ditched the famed Les Paul Junior he used on the Mountain records. It all helps the listener focus on the music and guitar, both of which are fine. Mostly blues covers, songs range from slow to medium-tempo arrangements of classics from John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson, among others.
Never much of a vocalist, West was always more of a shouter/screamer. For whatever reason though, here he keeps the register low and husky, which lends the sort of whiskey-and-cigarettes growl these songs demand.
The playing here is fine, as well. And for West, it’s the pentatonic scale and that glowing, violin-like vibrato he developed early on. More stinging than Clapton, slower than B.B., more pure than Trower, it’s the vibrato so many of us tried to get, only to find we lacked the technique and touch. But West had long ago put aside his classic vibrato, and for 20 years leaned on the whammy bar to color his phrasing. Maybe that’s why this return to form is so satisfying. The three best cuts on the record feature West, alone with an electric guitar. His reading of “Born Under a Bad Sign” is full of LP Junior tone, don’t-mess-with-me vocals, tasty licks, and a shimmering vibrato. Creamy guitar tones, pinch harmonics, and the basic pentatonic scale are the rocker’s stock in trade. And West hasn’t forgotten a thing. The original “Down By the River” co-written with Mick Jones from Foreigner, also gets a solo reading while “I Got the Blues” is a riff-fest over West rapping about how he started playing guitar.
Many have forgotten that West was a hell of a slide player, but searing slide tones abound here, particularly on “Crawlin’ Kingsnake.”
This album makes it very clear that West has a great feel for the blues, and has retained the abilities that make him a force to be reckoned with.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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