Sunday, June 13, 2010

GLENN HUGHES - "Hello. This is a Rock Band"


                             "Joe and I were looking at each other going,
                                       what in the world is going on?
                                Joe and I have NEVER had a problem."

Black Country Communion were almost relegated to the scrap heap before the echoes of recording had ended in Kevin Shirley's home studio, The Cave, in Malibu, California.  Rumors had managers, and lawyers killing off the band before they ever had a chance to even consider logos, album covers, press junkets and tours.

"We're getting on famously," says the legendary Glenn Hughes, speaking from his Southern California home, waiting to begin a two month extended press tour that will see the singer/bassist chatting up journalists across the globe in expectation of the September 21st release of Black Country Communion, the new super-group's first record.  Black Country Communion is comprised of Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian.

Hughes continues,  "All that crap you saw on the internet about two months ago was something so silly. And let me tell you, it smacks of very early Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, or The Black Crowes, what with all the in-fighting. 'They're fighting!'  Well, that sells magazines....I've gone through that my whole career, 'Is he too heavy, is he on crack, is he gonna jump off the building naked?'  It's all the controversial stuff, I'm not mad that they put that out, it does sell magazines - rock and roll is not always pretty and sweet.  Let's just say that at the time there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Look....J and R Adventures (Bonamassa's management company) is gonna run this, and I certainly don't mind, they've done a great job for Joe.  J and R, my manager, and I, we're all on the same page."

Glenn goes on, "You need to know this, Tony.  Everybody's great pals, everybody loves each other, and we're just dying for the next thing. I'm going to be everywhere, talking up a storm, and the most important thing is that on September 21 this thing is gonna jump out."

Hughes is the point man for BCC press campaign, and it's hard to imagine a better man for the job. The singer explains, "I've been kind of the unofficial spokesman for the band, for the obvious reason that I'm the one who's available to do it.  I'm from the rock side, and I'm naturally a media person. I keep saying that there's no mistakes in God's world, but there's no mistake why I'm doing this."

Hughes's enthusiasm for the project has been typical of the great passion and energy he exudes.  In our first discussion of the band in February, he spent almost two hours discussing the group's potential, when only a few backing tracks had been laid down.  His desire to return to his rock and roll roots was undeniable, roots  which were born in the Black Country of England, home to himself and an old friend named John Bonham, the late drummer of Led Zeppelin, whose son Jason mans the drum throne for this super-group.  Hughes was adamant that this was a calling, a place in time in which his mission seemed clear.

Hughes goes on, "There was no doubt about it when Kevin Shirley suggested Jason Bonham, y'know?  I'm supposed to be playing with Jason Bonham. His dad was a great mate of mine, and Jason all these years later has become a huge fan of that music. There's this big connection between the Bonhams and the Hugheses, and I'm privileged and honored to be part now because Jason has become a close, close friend to me. We get along famously."

Almost eerily, at this point in our discussion the phone rings. It's Bonham.  "Oh hang on....It's Jason, now.  Jason, hey, let me call you right back, I'm talking to a friend but I need to talk to you - yeah, I'm doing the interview.  I'll me call you back in 15 minutes, all right?

"Jason is just amazing on this record, Tony.  I've waited for him to make a great record, and he has too, mate, he has too.  I'll say it ten times over that this is by far the best playing he has done.  One of his best friends told him, when he heard the tracks a few months ago, 'This is what waiting for 25 years for the great drum track has amounted to'.

"Y'know, I told him right after we cut the tracks, I said, 'Jason, this is the best you've played, mate. Yeah....really man, this is the shit!"

Truer words were never spoken, indeed, Bonham's playing on Black Country Communion is spectacular, elevating his playing to the levels of the Moons and elder Bonhams of the world.  He plays brilliantly throughout the record, driving the band like a tank commander.

Many fans have wondered and speculated about what Black Country Communion means for guitarist/vocalist Joe Bonamassa's solo career, so I asked Glenn about this.  He replied in a matter of fact manner.

Hughes said, "See, the thing is, Tony, you can't really get around the fact that Joe has his solo career. Joe is going to be a solo act for the rest of his life.  I'm not resentful of that at all, I think he's great - he's gonna be playing the blues and doing his thing.  I said to Joe when we started this project, I said, 'Joe, I want to be in a band, I want to go out and rock.  And he said, 'Absolutely.'  So, I think what'll happen with our band is this - the album IS what it is, and it'll go viral, it'll just be everywhere.  It'll be undeniable that we gotta play.

"Listen, I don't want to spend the rest of my career playing to smaller audiences in smaller places, to funk and jazz aficionados, which you know I really love doing, but I want to go out rocking.  People call me 'The Voice of Rock, the great rock singer from the 70s,' and the fact of the matter is - I kind of woke up to that.  When I play live, Tony, I get into the funk, the grooves, but it always comes down to the heaviness and the funk - it's really dark and really nasty, and I wanna play with a great drummer who can play the grooves with me, and I wanna play with a great guitarist that plays organically.  And Joe Bonamassa's that guy.  

"You see, Tony, Joe just wants to play.  He doesn't especially want to talk about it, he doesn't especially want to talk about my new leather jacket, or fashion, my new suit.  He does want to talk about his new guitar - and that's Joe.  He's great.  I'm the fashion/rock guy, and he's the blues guy that kind of wants to be like Jimmy Page, so we're a match made in heaven.  A good point is that I don't want to work with people I don't genuinely enjoy.  Why would I?"

I asked Glenn about touring, given that he was about to embark on a long press junket that would seem to indicate more than just a one-off vanity record project.  Instead of stating with any sense of certainty whether Black Country Communion would or wouldn't be going out on the road (though some web sites are stating this as fact, I have yet to hear it from any BCC insider), he spoke of touring America in a more general sense.

"It's a little embarrassing to say this, but I haven't really toured in America since '94 when I did 15 dates with Trapeze.  America's a big, big animal.  America is a place where I want to do it right, I want to play America appropriately.  The right album, the right band, the right agent, and organization.  It's too big an animal otherwise.  I have an amazing hunger for playing live and always reinventing myself.  I was never the guy to get comfortable, just kicking back and making albums.  I'm the guy to be totally ensconced in working on brand new material.

"My manager gets it, and I'm sure that Joe does too, 'Can Glenn come play a session, can Joe do a session? - and it's great to know that I can do a session any day of the week, but I don't want to do that now.  I want to be investing my time in this band."

After listening to the record, and given the fact that Glenn Hughes is taking the summer off from touring to do a major intercontinental press tour, I'd be rather amazed if a tour didn't become an unavoidable inevitability.  The record is such a powerful rock and roll statement - I'd almost go so far as to call it the new rock and roll mission statement - that I believe the listening public will flock to it in huge numbers and continue to carry Bonamassa up on the amazing upward spiral that has become his career, taking Hughes, Bonham, and Sherinian with him.

We carried on our chat with Glenn speaking of how his past lead to the present.  

Hughes, on the path from Trapeze back to the Black Country, "I came busting out of the gate in 1969 as a rock singer and a rock bass player, and now for the rest of my career I've just got to concentrate on being that guy that came busting out of the gate and this particular project is a cornerstone of that belief.

"It's difficult to tell you how excited I am, because most musicians will go on and on and on about how great their new album is, and you've heard it all before, it's like....

"I gotta have you hear it.  I've just got off the phone with Roy Weisman (Bonamassa's manager), and three months later he's still on a pink cloud.  He cannot believe what a great record this is.  Kevin Shirley (the band's producer) just e-mailed me, and he just got off the back of doing Iron Maiden and Journey, and all he can do is talk about our record.

"I been doing this a long time, and I knew going into it what kind of record I was going to write, and I knew that Joe Bonamassa could do that with me.

"There's nothing out there like this (Black Country Communion's album), it's such a big album sound-wise.  And as I've said, this album was made in hours, man - I sang the vocals in a matter of 10-12 hours, and there's no rhythm guitar, Joe's playing one guitar and there may be one or two overdubs, and that's it.  Live solos, live Hammond, and maybe a few overdubs - that's really it."

In listening to the record, I was repeatedly impressed with Glenn and Joe's vocals, which sound like the result of months of work, but are actually a product of less than twenty-four hours of recording. Glenn had this to say about working with Bonamassa and super-producer Kevin Shirley.

"When I got 'round to doing the vocals with Kevin, just with Kevin and I, well normally I don't really like having people around when I'm singing -  but people seem to always want to come and watch me sing.  The beauty of working with Kevin is that it was just me and him - no second engineers, nothing, and we got on a roll.  We did five the first day, four the next, and then I went back to England, came back and finished it up. First take, second take maybe, but never really a third.

"I'm getting a feeling of how Joe Bonamassa makes records, I sort of understand it now.  It's like Joe goes in with Kevin, and it's like they get together, get the guy from New York - the guy from Letterman (drummer Anton Fig), Carmine, and Rick, and they just go sorta live; and Joe records live, and he solos live, and I'm goin'....OK.  I didn't realize this.  We're cutting live, are we?  I'm really playing on this album, there are no fixes on the bass.  Just exactly live, and I'm going....'You know something? I like this!' I haven't done this for 25 years!"

I asked Glenn how the band went about learning the songs, as they developed the tunes live without benefit of rehearsals.  His reply. "Joe's really great, because we played guitar together.  The first time I had to play guitar in front of him was when I showed the band One Last Soul.  I came in - the first production meeting with almost no time.  Sitting in front of Joe, and I didn't know Joe too much, we'd had dinner a few times.  So I'm sitting in front of Joe and I have to play Joe Bonamassa my new songs - you gotta be twisted.  But we got comfortable.  He looks at me, and says, 'Wait a minute, what's that chord?' He just makes you feel real comfortable.

"This one song, No Time that I had written, it was more, I guess....I had written it as a kind of a lazy drop D thing.  He made it sound Jimmy Page rather than Tony Iommi, which was very interesting.  And he had my song Beggarman, that you'll hear, that I just's the same riff I wrote, but Joe bent the crap out of it, and I just went, oooooooh, that's great!"

I asked Glenn about the sensational title track, Black Country.  The song is an instant classic, the kind of song people will know from now until the end of rock.  

He laughed a bit, then said, "That track....and when you hear that track in it's entirety - and this is difficult to tell you until you hear it -  that's the best rock track I have ever written.  It's a Glenn and Joe track, but it is the best thing I have ever been involved with.  That's our Immigrant Song, that's our Burn, our Highway Star, that's our Start Me Up, it's our, 'Hello. This is a rock band.'

"Tony, we're all super happy, we're all very excited.  This is difficult because you two haven't heard it (I was assisted in this interview by Libby Sokolowski), but you've gotta get it tonight if possible, contact Rachael now and see if you can still get it this evening. You've gotta hear this to get what I'm saying."

Glenn's final thoughts. "It's awesome.  There are certain things in life that are givens.  I was telling Joe.  I told Joe Bonamassa, I said, 'Joe, let me tell ya, buddy - this is a sure fucking thing.  Trust me when I tell you this - you're young.  This is a sure thing."

He wasn't lying.

Black Country Communion coming September 21, 2010.

tony conley and libby sokolowski

a note on photos: Given the paucity of available images, I pulled these photos from Google Images. I know several are the work of the legendary Robert Knight, and several are from Libby Sokolowski. If any others remain uncredited or if anyone would wish their photos not be used, I will gladly comply with all wishes.  Thanks, tony conley.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Black Country Communion - Debut Album Review


                                           "I am a messenger,
                                            this is my prophecy....
                                            I'm going back,
                                            to the Black Country."

That's where it all begins, following the most memorable intro to a rock and roll song that I've heard in way too long.  It's the intro to Black Country, the lead track of the debut record by Black Country Communion, the super-group comprised of Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian.  Hughes's amazing bass line kicks off the tune like a clarion call to arms for rock and roll, and he's quickly joined by Bonham doing some nifty cymbal work before Joe Bonamassa fires off one of the coolest riffs ever to grace a rock record.

Let's get one thing straight.  If you want to hear comparisons to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Free and The Who (and I'm not saying they wouldn't be favorable), you're gonna have to go elsewhere.  What I will say is that this record is the best debut disc I've heard by a new rock band in the last twenty years.  To waste our time trying to find comfortable reference points is to sell everything short - this project stands on its own and neither wants nor requires aid to describe the brilliance it contains.  Regardless of the context in which you place it, it delivers the goods.

I first heard the record described by Glenn Hughes back in February, shortly after I had written an optimistic blog stating that this combination of players could produce the sleeper record of 2010.  Glenn initially spoke with a confidence and pride that had me reeling backwards, hopeful, but wondering if it really could be as good as he described.  Subsequent to that initial interview, I began hearing comments from various sources who had heard material at producer Kevin Shirley's studio, or on the Bonamassa tour bus, and their comments were as powerful as Glenn's.  Bonamassa bassist Carmine Rojas raved when we spoke in early May, after having just heard the final mixes, and Red Hot Chili Pepper and sometime Hughes confrere Chad Smith also waxed enthusiastically of the album's excellence.

Black Country continues with Hughes belting out a veritable mission statement when Joe Bonamassa unleashes a furious wah infused solo that invokes much that we have nearly forgotten to expect from a rock record.  I found myself laughing out loud at the power and beauty of it all.  I hadn't gotten a goosebump from a new song in too long, had all but given up on the probability, yet there they were.  Instantly Bonamassa assumes the title of rock guitar god - the world will have yet another accolade to heap upon the young guitar wizard when the record is released on September 21.

Coming out of the solo section, Hughes sings the chorus a cappella with Bonamassa answering each line with a scorching retort that compares with the greatest call and response moments in rock and blues history before Sherinian takes the reins and leads the band out of one of the most memorable introductions I've ever heard.

It's clear that the Black Country signifies to Hughes his early rock roots; this is firmly entrenched in the earthy depths of the soulful sounds he had described to me back in February, when he passionately described the kinship he felt for his homeland roots, where he had grown up with Jason's father, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (a huge fan of Hughes's early 70s band Trapeze), and how vitally important it was to have Jason in this group.

If there were still singles, at least in the form that most of us recall from the halcyon days of big budgets and vinyl jukeboxes, One Last Soul may have been the record's first 45 rpm.  Most readers are already familiar with this track from the YouTube videos that appeared when the band made their live debut at a Bonamassa show in Southern California a few months back, but for those who aren't, this is a powerful piece of classic hard rock that sounds at once familiar and yet brand new.  It struts with a confidence that recalls the days when men in rock bands didn't look at their shoes, tuned their guitars, and looked like stars.  This is a song made by men who travel in jets and drive fast cars, and don't mind who knows it.

Joe Bonamassa is well known by his fans for his melodic slow blues numbers, and The Great Divide kicks off with a sexy, sultry single string attack that soon gives way to some very sophisticated music making from the entire band that belies the speed with which this record was made.  Hughes tells this tune's tale with great ethos and passion.  While many speak of Glenn's vocal abilities in terms of powerful histrionics, his subtlety, range and superb phrasing is the real story here.  He sings of the beauty of the great divide, and I can't begin to doubt it.  The man sells the song spectacularly.  This is why many call him The Voice of Rock.

Bonamassa's guitar solo on The Great Divide starts as a slow builder with a reprise of the tune's intro before he bursts into a conversational confession of silky sweet melody.  Jason Bonham is brilliant here, as he is across the whole album - he's finally made a record in which he drives the band and fully displays his awesome skills.  His playing is his and his alone, with no mention or reminders of his vaunted past being necessary.   

Next up is Down Again, which swaggers wonderfully as Hughes sings a classic tale of the need to keep rocking and rolling along.  The chorus has a wonderful reprise with great harmonies singing, "I'm Down Again," as Hughes assures us that, "It's not all over," and indeed it's not, as Joe Bonamassa rips off yet another sizzling hot solo before Bonham and Sherinian bring the band beautifully back into a repeat of the chorus.  This is yet another tune that sounds like it could have been months in the making instead of a few short days.

Beggarman has Bonamassa working his wah pedal hard on the intro to this sophisticated piece of rock writing that mixes elements of rock guitar god maneuvers, sleek funk and gritty rock.  This is a very modern take on a very classic sound.  It puts me in mind of much great rock history, yet sounds very new and exciting.  The guitarist performs a blinder of a straight ahead rock and roll solo filled with acrobatic pentatonics and cascading crescendos bringing to mind Steve Vai's best work.  Smooth as silk but still edgy and thrilling.

Singing a lead vocal on an album that features the vocal talents of Glenn Hughes is a task that not many people would attempt, and I will admit wondering how Joe Bonamassa would fare singing side by side on a record with one of rock's greatest voices.  His vocals have improved with every new release, but this was a whole different venue, singing big rock beside the legendary pipes of Mr. Hughes.  The Bonamassa penned ballad Song of Yesterday shows the pupil holding his own very capably, and when Hughes does join in, it only adds to the beauty of this soulful number.  Derek Sherinian, a keyboardist of amazing technical skills, displays his awesome ability to melodically enhance a vocal performance, with some tremendously empathetic work that supports Bonamassa's singing before Joe takes the tune to rock riff city and Hughes joins in on the vocals.  While this song would not sound out of place on a Bonamassa solo record, Hughes, Sherinian, and Bonham's assistance render something brand new out of an already successful formula.  Bonham and Hughes push Bonamassa's solo to higher and higher ground - you can hear them listening to one another very closely, and Sherinian keeps showing up in the perfect place, playing the perfect part.

Jason Bonham kicks off No Time, which features another great Hughes vocal performance, enhanced by a powerful unison riff played by the guitarist and bassist which somewhat puts me in mind of the vastly underrated King's X.  This is a tune that shouts out that it wants to be played loud and live.  It rocks along very solidly until Sherinian throws the band into a moment that I can only call a Zeppelin-esque raga that leads the band into a vaguely flamenco sounding refrain with Bonham supplying a perfect snare drum recital before a thunderous fill that takes the band back into another passionate Hughes chorus.  The hooks on this record are huge and frequent.  Expect to hear yourself humming and singing along almost immediately.  Isn't this fun?  A review of a record that is not only wildly enthusiastic, but also completely accurate?  I'm having a blast writing this.

Medusa.  This song is nearly as legendary as its namesake, and once again, I had a bit of trepidation in my head and heart when I heard that it would be included on this album.  Too many times, classic rock acts have re-recorded old standards and almost always disappointingly.  One more time, my fears have been obliterated as Joe Bonamassa takes ownership with a great tremolo'd intro, Gilmouresque slide fills, and a sledgehammer heavy riff-o-rama.  Glenn Hughes sings this track as if he knows it is finally going to get the listen it has always deserved.  Bonamassa and Hughes sound as if they have been playing together for a great many years, not a few precious hours.  Another example of a great band of musicians who are expert not just at their instruments but also at listening and sensitively supporting one another.

Nine tracks in, and no slow down in sight.  I can't remember the last time this happened.  It's been many seasons since a record held me hostage for nine songs straight.  How glorious.

In fact, The Revolution in Me, another Bonamassa lead vocal, had me riveted as Joe sang and played as if his very existence were dependent upon his performance.  This is simply great hard rock - heavy as a hammer and with great support from Derek Sherinian's Hammond B-3 organ, and Jason Bonham's awesome display of tub pummeling.  Midway through, Sherinian switches to an electric piano sound that evokes the Michael Schenker era UFO, and Bonamassa reacts with a very Teutonic bit of melodic soloing that will have fans of heavy rock smiling wildly and thrusting fists to the heavens in staunch admiration.  From beginning to end, Bonamassa is stretching into new horizons and doing so with grace, power, and beauty.

On Stand (At the Burning Tree), Hughes again takes the microphone on the track that most closely resembles his funk informed solo work.  Echoes of very European sounding riffage by Bonamassa conjures the rock ghost of a certain side-burned, black wearing six stringer, and the shadow is a pleasant shade of purple.  Very gypsy, but this gypsy is sophisticated, and Hughes knocks at the doors of Stevie Wonder and other smooth, soulful vocalists before slipping back into a powerfully rocking chorus.  More brilliance that is made even more so when one realizes that this was recorded almost on the fly, in a matter of days as opposed to months.  While Hughes great vocal chops get the lion's share of attention, his songwriting and bass playing are both stunning throughout this entire album.

Containing rock and roll that brings to mind Australia's Young brothers and sleek sophistry, Sista Jane switches gears seamlessly as Hughes and Bonamassa trade lines back and forth before returning to the straight ahead rock of the chorus, yet another great hook.  I've never heard Joe Bonamassa sing quite this well.  Obviously singing next to Glenn Hughes has elevated his game, and he's again proven his mettle, and defied any lingering doubts that could exist concerning his vocal skills.

While I have attempted to avoid direct comparisons, discussion of the end of Sista Jane must speak of The Who.  The band pay loving homage to the glory days of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, as Bonham and Hughes throw down rhythms that serve as reminders of exactly what it means for a bassist and drummer to be called a rhythm section, and finally Sherinian brings the message home with a loving dose of Who's Next keyboarding.

The record ends with an epic jam entitled, Too Late for the Sun.  Clocking in at eleven and a half minutes, Hughes and Bonamassa sound like 21st century outlaws in an arid showdown at the OK corral.  Two soul cowboys; a modern day, rock and roll Butch and Sundance.  This track is one that would become larger than life when played on stage.  Sherinian shines very brightly on this song - his B-3 cuts through the mix like a knife and allows Bonamassa the luxury of getting a bit atmospheric and experimental, whilst Hughes and Bonham joust with understated brilliance.

So there it is, I've said it.  The best debut by a new rock band in several decades.  The rumors have proven to be sometimes true, sometimes false.  Yes, the band is astounding and the record got not just made, but made startlingly well.  Talk of dissension and tension?  Well, that's essential for great rock and roll, isn't it?

I must thank everyone involved in this project, and for this first glance/listen: Joe Bonamassa, Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham, Derek Sherinian, and producer Kevin Shirley (who I didn't speak of nearly enough in this review), for creating such an amazing piece of music; Roy Weisman and Carl Swann for their cooperation and granted access, as well as Roy's fantastic enthusiasm for Black Country Communion; and Rachel Iverson at J&R, and Erin Podbereski of Jensen Communications for their help.

Very special thanks to Libby Sokolowski, who has graciously assisted me in so many ways, and finally to Glenn Hughes, who has been so wonderfully helpful and generously given me hours of his time and attention.

tony conley

June 11, 2010

All Photos by Libby Sokolowski