January 29, 2018

From the Vaults: Soulfire and 10 X 10


    It has been much too long since we presented a good old fashioned album review in this space so this would seem to be just as good a time as any to do just that.  With that said, let me warn readers that this won’t be a one album review.  No, we are going to take a look at six albums, two of which are remastered original recordings from 1973 and 1974 and the rest are of a little newer vintage.  Just to make sure the hook is set, let me point out that the six discs in question come from two artists who have been in the musical trenches for a long, long time.

    In our last FTV for 2017 (December 27, 2017:  Little Steven), we mentioned that Little Steven Van Zant’s new album with his Disciples of Soul band would be on the air just as soon as we could get it ordered.  It took a little longer to arrive than expected so we began airing it immediately.  It was well worth the wait.  “A little longer to arrive than expected” has a double meaning here:  it took some time to get Soulfire into our hands, but it also took Little Steven eighteen years to cycle back to his Disciples of Soul project to make a new record.  

    The title track of Soulfire starts with a funky guitar rhythm that would not have been out of place on an early Jackson 5 album.  Little Steven is known for several things as a music producer and arranger, all of which are evident on this opening track.  There are horns aplenty, a lilting string background in the chorus and layered background vocals that make this opening track a real piece of ear candy.  A savvy producer like Little Steven knows that if one harbors any illusions that people will listen to a whole album, the opening track has to smack them in the forehead.  Soulfire certainly does that, but like an artist who begins a live performance with several great tunes played one after the other, Little Steven is just getting warmed up.

  Track 2 (I’m Coming Back) is a real treat because I first heard it on Southside Johnny’s Better Days album many years ago.  The arrangement is the same as Southside’s and the vocal delivery leaves little doubt why Southside Johnny and Little Steven formed such a solid unit fronting the Asbury Jukes.  There isn’t a finer example of the Jersey Sound pioneered by the Jukes than I’m Coming Back.  The biggest departure is the wah-wah laden solo on this version.  Back then it made a big enough impression that we incorporated the music bed from several of that album’s tracks for a few of our station promos we have now used for more than twenty years.

    Blues is my Business evokes Blood, Sweat, and Tears with the punchy horn intro.  The organ takes front stage in the first solo break and Little Steven’s guitar takes the second break.  He arranges songs for the full effect and not just as vehicles to show off his guitar chops.  Three tracks into Soulfire and Little Steven has laid out three tracks that would get plenty of air play on any AOR (Album Oriented Rock) radio station.  More superb background vocals round out Blues.

    The cowbell that kicks off I Saw the Light seques into more tasty horn that supports this jumping tune featuring what one could almost call ‘Little Gospel Steven’.  The closest Little Steven comes to a ballad is Track 5, Some Things Just Don’t Change.  More horns, of course, but now the guitar figure is taken over by what sounds like a phase shifted leslie rotating speaker normally employed with a Hammond B-3 organ.  I have heard guitar players overuse this effect in live concerts, but here Little Steven uses it to support the song, not to overwhelm it.

 Love on the Wrong Side of Town is the first track that sounds like a Bruce Springsteen tune both in the introduction and the vocals.  The E-Street Band, however,  never used horns quite as densely as The Disciples of Soul.  The City Weeps Tonight is a real throwback.  The intro and vocals are as close to Doo Wop music as I have heard in a long time.  Down and out in New York City kicks off with bongos, syncopated guitar, and flute that are reminiscent of Isaac Hayes in full Shaft mode.  The intro stretches to the point where one might think this will be an instrumental, but once the vocal kicks in, it tells a compelling street story of the Fat Cats and diehards in NYC.  Give Little Steven credit – he knows how to use his voice to color a story.

    The marching snare drum beat at the beginning of Standing in the Line of Fire gives way to a sinewy guitar line that would sound great in a Sergio Leone move (think The Good, The Bad, The Ugly).  The organ – vocal interplay (yes, with Sergio Leone trumpet in the background) makes this an ear worm kind of chorus that will stick with you.  Driving drums and pounding piano sets the tone in St. Valentine’s Day.  Here Little Steven works the lower registers of his voice.  On certain phases, he comes off sounding a bit like Mark Knopfler’s phrasing on Sultans of Swing.

    I Don’t Want to go Home slows things down one more time with an opening horn arrangement  (again) right out of the BST catalog.   When the guitar strum picks up the pace, it morphs into a light pop rocker with Little Steven sounding like Southside Johnny Lyon more than ever.  Perhaps this is the set up intended because the last track is another recycled arrangement from Lyon’s Better Days album.  Ride the Night Away is Little Steven reminding one and all that the New Jersey sound he and Southside invented is still with us.  Another humable chorus filled with dynamite background vocals.  Okay, that covers disk review #1.  Now on to disks 2 through 6.

    Our second artist is the late Ronnie Montrose whom we also talked about in an FTV segment back in the late summer (FTV:  Montrose 8-9-17).  Outside of the guitar playing fraternity, Ronnie Montrose doesn’t get the recognition he should, but I am willing to be you have heard his work. How about Wild Nights by Van Morrison?  Edgar Winter Group’s mega hits Frankenstein and Free Ride?  Yep, all three of those tracks feature Ronnie on guitar.  As we pointed out in our last article about Montrose, he was a tortured talent who was not driven by record chart success.  He had a penchant for not getting along with band leaders and when he became one himself, he had a knack for alienating his own band.  Drummer Denny Carmassi had the longer tenure playing with Montrose than anyone and even he is at a loss to explain what Ronnie was thinking during his ever shifting career.  Carmassi puts it bluntly when he says, “Anytime Ronnie became successful, he ran the other way.”  

    In the early years of the new millennium, Montrose fronted a power trio with bassist Ricky Phillips (Styx, The Babys, Bad English) and drummer Eric Singer (Kiss, Alice Cooper).  This puts Phillips a perfect perch to describe why Montrose followed a straight musical path from one thing to the next thing without circling back on his past work:  “People who truly want to break ground and not repeat themselves leave themselves open to not reaping the obvious successes of a repetitive performance,  In many ways, Ronnie reminds me of Jeff Beck.”  Montrose first conceived of the 10 X 10 album during those power trio days, and after a decade of planning, he was finally getting around to putting the final pieces together when he tragically took his own life in March of 2012.  He had explained his personal philosophy for dealing with the crushing bouts of depression he cycled through to his wife Leighsa Montrose:  “Listen – I don’t want to live my life like this (as he held out his hand flat), I want to live my highest highs and I want to live my lowest lows,  I want to be in both, and savor both.”  In the end of his two year battle with prostate cancer, he had finally picked up the guitar again but the ‘lowest low’ apparently overwhelmed him.

    Had he finished making 10 X 10 before he died, Montrose would have been able to remind the music world that his early 1970s work inspired generations of guitar junkies with his crunching chords and tone.  He wasn’t as technically proficient as some of those who followed his lead, but he created a sound with his hands that they all wanted to duplicate.  When he passed away, his wife gave Phillips the green light to finish the album.  It took five years, but 10 X 10 has now been released and it features a who’s-who of rock singers and guitarist enlisted by Phillips to finish the project.  Vocalist Eric Martin (Mr. Big) guests on the opening track (Heavy Traffic) which begins with what sounds suspiciously like a battle cry: “ROONNNNNNNIIIIIEEEEEEEE!”   Ten different guitar soloists grace the ten cuts including Rick Derringer (who also spent a good deal of time with Edgar Winter), Joe Bonamassa, Brad Whitford (Aerosmith).  Besides Martin’s contribution, there are also nine other vocalists on the album ranging from his old Montrose singer Sammy Hagar (Van Halen and more solo albums than you can shake a stick at), Tommy Shaw (who is Phillips bandmate in Styx), Davey Pattison (Gamma, Robin Trower), and Glenn Hughes (Trapeze, Deep Purple, Black Country Communion).  It is an all-star affair to be sure.  

    Technically, this isn’t an album review as much a preview of its’ arrival.  As soon as we have it in hand, it will be on the air.  If you are counting, we have only accounted for two of the six disks mentioned in the opening paragraph.  The other four arrived just after Christmas and we have already been giving them air time.  Among these four disks are the remastered first and second albums by the band Montrose (Montrose and Paper Money).  Included with the Montrose reissue is a CD of demos and live tracks.  The live tracks were recorded at the Record Plant in Sausalito, CA when they had been rushed into the studio as a replacement for Van Morrison who didn’t feel his band was ready for the live broadcast yet .  The DJ emceeing the event mentions “I don’t even think they have a name yet.”  

    Paper Money reissue contains a bonus disk of another live event from the same studio recorded in December of 1974.  In both cases, these bonus disks show a band that is just beginning to feel their power.  Rhino Records could not have found a more fitting way to reignite interest in Ronnie Montrose becaused both of these early 1970s albums are classic Ronnie Montrose.  The bonus material, particularly the live tracks, show that what Ronnie Montrose did was no trick of the studio.  Keep your dial set on 88.5 as 10 X 10 will soon join the first two Montrose reissues on our playlist.   

Top Piece Video – Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul cover Little Steven and Southside Johnny – I’m Coming Back