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The album was named The Unusual Suspects because very rarely do you get an assemblage of this pedigree of players on one album.  West’s legacy as a musician was built by injecting rocket-fueled guitar into classic Mountain performances like “Mississippi Queen” and the epics “Nantucket Sleighride” and “Theme From An Imaginary Western” — all still part of his live concerts.  Several of his new songs, including The Unusual Suspects’ opener “One More Drink For the Road” and “Legend,” were written by West’s long time friend and former classmate Joe Pizza.   

“I like writing songs on the piano, if only I could actually play the instrument.  It makes me think more melodically when I’m playing the guitar and singing.  I get different ideas for melodies than I do when I’m playing guitar. Most people think I prefer the organ, because Mountain had an organ, but even then the sound I really wanted to hear was the piano.”


Another unexpected spin is West’s take on Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out the Lights.”  On The Unusual Suspects, West, Slash and Wylde weave a triple-threat of acoustic and electric guitars into the tune for a blend of ferocity and feeling unlike anything the song’s author ever imagined.

“Standing On Higher Ground,” which Gibbons brought in to the studio, was then completed with West and producer Fabrizio Grossi, and recorded standing toe-to-toe in a Los Angeles studio.  The song is a highlight for West, who shares, “Only Billy Gibbons can come up with an intro that sounds like Hendrix and Z.Z. Top combined at the hip.”


But despite its stellar guest turns, the heart and soul of The Unusual Suspects lies with West’s own wildly original playing and singing.

“Dustin Hoffman has a saying about acting,” West says. “It’s ‘Knowing how much to say without saying too much.’ For me, as a player, my motto is ‘Knowing how much to play without playing too much.’”


“As far as my voice goes, when I open my mouth, that’s want comes out — period. Plus, I’ve always loved the great soul and blues singers, so that’s instinctively how I got my phrasing,” he explains.


“But when it comes to the guitar, I could never play fast so I learned to make every note count — to be sure every lick has something to say. I believe in having a big sound and leaving space between notes, and that space is like the point where the music stops in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It builds tension and raises the question, ‘What’s gonna happen now?’ Plus, I love to feel the speakers move the air. The heavy sound it takes to make that happen really does it for me.”


West’s tonal awakening came when his first group, soul-rock outfit the Vagrants, opened for Cream in New York City and he heard the wall of sound generated by Eric Clapton’s Marshall amplifiers. Hendrix was also an early influence on his sonic sculpting. But his desire to rock was born when his grandmother took his to see Elvis Presley as a pre-teen.


 As luck had it, West’s upstairs neighbor in the Manhattan apartment building where his family lived was Waddy Wachtel. Today Wachtel is one of the world’s top-gun session men. Back then he was the guy who taught West to play and sold him his first Les Paul Junior, the instrument West favored through his Mountain years. Currently he plays a Leslie West signature model made by Dean Guitars.


“The bottom line is, I think of myself as a blues player,” West adds. “I can play a lot more than the blues scale, but that’s what I enjoy hearing and the emotions those minor-keys trigger fit my personality. I don’t wake up in the morning full of sunshine and ready to go out and run around the block. I see things in a more emotionally complex way.”


“That doesn’t mean I’m depressed all the time,” West continues. “In fact, I’m happy because I’ve kept evolving. My singing has gotten better and, as a player, I’m more melodic and have a better vibrato. As I get older, I think I’ve gotten better.”



Leslie West - Biography


LINKS

Nobody sounds like rock ‘n’ roll legend Leslie West. Absolutely nobody.

West has been in command of one of the biggest, boldest electric guitar tones known to man or beast from 1969’s Woodstock festival, which introduced his group Mountain to the pages of music history, through his riveting new album The Unusual Suspects. And his voice is even more recognizable — a powerful mix of honey and gravel that falls somewhere between Otis Redding and King Kong.


At age 65, West stands entirely undiminished on The Unusual Suspects, a proud mix of boogies blues, rockers and ballads that puts his songwriting skills at the fore in tunes like the hard rocking “Mississippi Queen” flashback “Mudflap Mama” and the sweet, soulful love song “You and Me.”


West’s title for the album was inspired by his handpicked roster of A-list six-string co-stars, which includes Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons, Slash, ex-Ozzy Osbourne foil Zakk Wylde, blues-rock firebrand Joe Bonamassa and L.A. session giant and Toto leader Steve Lukather. The other distinguished guest is drummer Kenny Aronoff, whose powerhouse style has made him a first-call accomplice for John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart and many others.

“These guys don’t show up to play on everybody’s albums,” West declares. “They’re all stars in their own right, and fantastic players — every one with their own sound and style, and about as far from ‘the usual suspects’ as it gets.”

They also have deep musical and personal connections to West. He and Mascot/Provogue labelmate Lukather, who adds acoustic guitar to the piano-based boogie “One More Drink for the Road,” have been friends for decades.


As for Gibbons, he and West met during Z.Z. Top’s first major tour, when Gibbons’ band got its big break opening for Mountain. Slash — of Velvet Revolver, Snakepit and Guns N’ Roses fame — has cited West as an influence on his own brawny playing. Ditto for Wylde, who affectionately refers to West as “Dad.” And Bonamassa was so moved by West’s earlier recording of Willie Dixon and Eddie Boyd’s blues standard “Third Degree” from a West, Bruce and Lang album that he requested they cut it again for The Unusual Suspects.


Image courtesy of Paul Natkin / Fret 12