Leslie West has been putting his unique twist on the blues for the past forty-plus years. Manhandling its gritty old heart into a shape that suits his 'inimitable' personality, he delights in catching his audience unawares with unexpected lil' tricks and turns. But don't expect him to catch you when he leads you astray and sends you freefalling to some inglorious blues hell, it's just not in his nature.
In the sixties, Leslie built a Mountain round his complex character, hollering from the top with a voice that can curdle milk and, well, move mountains (of course). Since then, his indefatigable spirit has mooched onwards, consistently rocking the foundations and booting out at least a couple of albums a decade.
Now, despite diabetes and the loss of half a leg, he's still pumping away like an old engine, undeterred and immovable. If you can't take Mohammed to the mountain, well you know what you can do.
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With 'Unusual Suspects', he's enlisted a little help from his friends to throw some cunning curves and shed light on his fearless blues manoeuverings. Steve Lukather hangs onto his coattails when he spits out the delightfully uplifting 'One More Drink For The Road' with crushing efficiency, before Slash joins in for 'Mud Flap Momma', squealing and grinding like a biker's whore on the back of a low-slung Harley.
So far, so safe: blues, rock, engine oil and sex. Oh, and lyrics for the latter written by his wife…what a lady! Indeed, Jenni has, apparently, turned him from irascible genius to pussycat-with-heart-full-of-joy in one fell swoop, and a few songs tell this tale: the sweet 'My Gravity', bluesrocker 'Love You Forever' and, even, The Beatles' cover, 'I Feel Fine'.
When the distinct and glorious instability of his character cracks the paint, it's kinda subtle, yet throws you nonetheless. The beautifully dark 'To The Moon' reveals a more ominous side, ruminating with mellifluous power, before abruptly slamming on the brakes in frustration. Pushing himself to a place he'd already arrived at, he was never going to make it any further: 'As I lay out my cards, am I trying too hard?/I was already there on the moon'
. Do I need to spell it out?
Even the blues cover, 'Third Degree', behaves like an unruly child. A magnificent guitar and vocal duel with Joe Bonamassa screaming agonizingly 'It's KILLING me!'
, it ends up drifting out on a winsome outtake, and it seems like we're trespassing on a private jam.
There are standard bluesrockers like the aforementioned 'Love You Forever' and 'Standing On Higher Ground', the latter written with Billy Gibbons, guitar in hand, chugging away in distinctive ZZ Top style; but always there's Leslie's insatiable need to throw in the bitterest slice of lemon, in this case a sudden off-kilter lurch into downward minor key territory. Like, where did that come from?
Indeed, where did 'I Feel Fine' come from, apart from that lovestruck heart? Gorgeous Westy guitar break, but a bit like throwing The Beach Boys into the moshpit at a Metallica gig. 'Legend', too, is a tad schmaltzy, and even Leslie had reservations about its egotistical connotations, but it does at least have the potential to move past those, to something paradoxically humble. Hey, another twist.
||DID YOU KNOW...?
Leslie turned down an offer by The Stones to replace guitarist Mick Taylor...
He also turned down Lynyrd Skynyrd, just before the fatal plane crash that killed most of the band…
And when the party's nearly over, Slash stamps his 'lectric fingers indelibly all over 'Turn Out The Lights', with a lil' help from Zakk Wylde - and, well, 'yeehaa' is all I can think of to say about this one. It is, indeed, the end of the party, apart from the screwed-up 'I Don't Know (The Beetlejuice Song)', featuring a vocal sample from one of DJ Howard Stern's freaky 'Whack Packers', nicknamed (naturally) 'Beetlejuice'. (There's a story here: check out 'Howard Stern, Beetlejuice' on You Tube.)
Yep, Leslie West is that last suck of lemon after the Tequila at the end of the party. Just when you thought it was safe to drift off into that comfortable, intoxicated sleep, that bitter tang wakes you up, yep, in freefall.
Like I said, a unique twist of blues from a unique twisted soul.