Originality, excitement, honesty and survival are all part of what makes a legend, and those qualities ripple through every song on Leslie West's album Still Climbing (Provogue Records / Mascot Label Group on October 29, 2013). The disc is also a testimonial to the strength and durability of West's artistry. Born October 22, 1945, as he approaches the age of 68, West has packed some of the most soulful and searing vocal performances of his half-century career into these eleven tracks, and his guitar has never sounded more massive or riff-propelled.
West, who ascended rock's Mt. Olympus with his band Mountain in a historic performance at 1969's Woodstock festival, accomplished all of that despite a life threatening battle with diabetes that cost him most of his right leg in 2011, just after his previous Mascot Label Group release Unusual Suspects was recorded. "I'm lucky it wasn't one of my hands or I'd be screwed," West says with his customary candor. "It was a difficult struggle, and after the amputation I didn't know whether I'd ever want to or be able to perform again. But a month later I played at the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp in New York City, and I heard my guitar on stage and that was it. I knew I had to keep going."
Following the success of Unusual Suspects, West approached the new release with vision of tying the albums together. "This record is a sequel to Unusual Suspects, where I had friends of mine that include Slash, Zakk Wylde, Steve Lukather, Joe Bonamassa and Billy Gibbons come to the studio and play," West explains. This time Jonny Lang, Johnny Winter, Twisted Sister's Dee Snider and Alter Bridge / Creed's Mark Tremonti do the honors. "What's different on Still Climbing is that I wanted my guitars to sound as big as I look. So I used four of my Dean signature model guitars with my Mountain of Tone humbucking pickups. I plugged them into my Blackstar amps - no pedals - and turned them up loud and raw, and what you hear is exactly what I did in the studio. These Blackstar amps deliver everything I need without 'confidence' pedals. I played one of the early tracks we recorded for Slash, and he said, 'That is as heavy as it gets.'" Also making an appearance on the album is Archer's Dylan Rose, performing a guitar solo on "Don't Ever Let Me Go."
Still Climbing, co-produced by West and Mike "Metal" Goldberg, who engineered all of the sessions. The album, excluding the tracks "Tales of Woe" and his bassist's "Rev Jones Time (Somewhere Over The Rainbow)" was mixed by Mike Fraser, who's worked with Metallica, AC/DC, Rush, Joe Satriani, Bad Company and many others. Songs like "Dyin' Since The Day I Was Born," "Hatfield or McCoy," and "Busted, Disgusted or Dead" establish a new litmus test for "heavy." The latter features West and Winter on dueling slide guitars. Both men have been friends since the Woodstock era, and in recent years they've toured together and individually kicked methadone addiction. "We're thinking we should write a book about that experience," West relates. "Everybody talks about being addicted to heroin or cocaine, but methadone, which is a synthetic opiate used to get you off of heroin, will grab hold of you and not let go."
West also gave up smoking cigarettes and pot after a bout with bladder cancer, so it's no wonder many of Still Climbing's numbers explore the theme of survival and, ultimately, triumph. To that end, West avows, "Not only am I lucky to be here, but because I stopped smoking my voice is now stronger than it's ever been -€” as strong as my guitar playing." His inclusion of "Feeling Good," a song by British actor-musician Anthony Newley that was made famous by Steve Winwood's group Traffic, is a testimonial to all of that. Its lyrics celebrate a "new dawn for me" as West and his longtime buddy Dee Snider of Twisted Sister engage in vocal pyrotechnics, trading lines with virtuosic zeal.
The truth is, West has always been an outstanding vocalist, earning comparisons to soul legends like Otis Redding since his 1969 debut Mountain, which gave his historic band its name. On Still Climbing West revisits the catalog of another classic soul man, Percy Sledge, with the enduring "When a Man Loves a Women." He's joined by now 32 year-old soul man Jonny Lang, who he met 15 years ago when Lang was a rising guitar prodigy. West says they cut the tune side-by-side in the studio, their soaring guitars and voices twining to bring fresh blood and a blues-soaked arrangement to the song.
The tracks "When a Man Loves a Woman," "Never Let Me Go" and "Fade Into You" explore the theme of romance. In 2009 West married his wife Jenni, who co-wrote many of Still Climbing's songs with the guitar giant. They exchanged vows on stage at the Woodstock 40th anniversary concert. West credits her with saving his life â€” first with her love, and then by making the difficult decision to permit his doctors to amputate while he was in a coma. West offers candidly, "Being in the band Mountain was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done in my professional life. I became a musician, not just a guitar player. Being in the group with Felix Pappalardi was an honor, who was so talented as a producer, arranger, bass player, guitar player, and all the things I aspired to be. We had some great years together, and some rocky roads. Real rocky roads. His wife Gail, who by the way shot and killed Felix, could suck the fun out of a clown! It left a terrible taste in my mouth about working with my wife, Jenni. I did not want to risk going down that path where your wife was involved in every aspect of your musical life. When I first got together with her, I was so smitten by her looks, her body, and oh my, what a body, her sense of humor, and everything one would want in a soul-mate, I never wanted to have her involved in my musical stuff. One day I read some of her poems and they were really good, but I had a real problem taking it further. While I was writing songs for my last album, Unusual Suspects, I had a really great slide guitar riff without lyrics. I open my iPad, and I see somehow the words to the song 'Mudflap Momma' appear. I started fooling with it and low and behold, Holy Shit! Slash ended up playing on it with me, and it was a WOW rock song. Well, on this new album, I was into reading all of Jenni's stuff. Some worked well and some I had to make work. Needless to say, Jenni has become so good at expressing thoughts to paper, she has become my primary collaborator on the lyrical side of my new recordings. I hope all who hear this album enjoy the songs we did together, and ones we wrote with Jon Tiven, whom I have worked with for years. Now I have two writers feeding me lyrics, and I look forward to opening my iPad, never knowing what to expect. As good as Jenni has gotten, I will never, ever, get her a gun. I love her so much, now if I could only write some lyrics!"
West has been performing since 1965, when he fronted the soul-fired Vagrants in his native New York City. After that group opened for Cream and The Who, West was inspired to begin his lifelong devotion to crafting the big, alluring guitar riffs that are the framework of all of his songs. Seeing Jimi Hendrix cemented that strategy, which has earned West the number 66 slot on Rolling Stone's list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists," and the support of several generations of fans all over the world.
A bevy of platinum and gold albums on West's office wall comprise yet another tribute to the enduring appeal of his music. They're for top selling rap recordings built around samples from "Long Red," which appeared on the Mountain album. Jay-Z tapped the tune for his 2004 mega-smash "99 Problems." So did Kanye West, for "Barry Bonds" and "The Glory," and Common's "The People," along with others, which he re-recorded for Still Climbing with his brother and former Vagrants-mate Larry West on bass. "I thought it was time for me to let people hear that song the way I do it now. I used a B-3 organ on it again, but this time it has a lot more balls," West relates.
Balls, guts, heart - more words that are part of West's legend and describe the roaring crescendos and deep emotional roots of Still Climbing - and West himself. "You know, when it comes to talent, we don't all move at the same rate of speed," West muses. "Some people start at the top of their game and after 10 or 20 years you wonder what the hell happened to them. I like to joke that the older I get the better I used to be, but after giving up drugs and smoking, my voice can hit notes that I never could reach before. I'm thankful for that."