In many ways, Leslie West’s new Still Climbing is another hard-rocking link in a very long musical chain. West is best remembered, of course, for being the guitarist and vocal belter in Mountain that had the hit “Mississippi Queen” in 1969. Before that song, Mountain made a splash at Woodstock after the group had only played a handful of gigs. In the decades to come, some would recognize that Mountain was an obvious precursor to what would become heavy metal. After all, Black Sabbath supported Mountain in the British band’s first U.S. tour.
Throughout the 11 songs of Still Climbing, clear nods to this past are evident in both style and substance along with equally clear signs of artistic development and personal growth. For example, West has made no secret that Still Climbing is a sequel to 2011’s Unusual Suspects (2011), the album released just before the operation that amputated much of his right leg. As with many new collections where super guest stars populate each other’s albums, Unusual Suspects boasted performances from Slash, Zakk Wylde, Steve Lukather, Joe Bonamassa, and Billy Gibbons. For Still Climbing, West brought on Jonny Lang, Johnny Winter, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and Alter Bridge/Creed’s Mark Tremonti.
Lang shares vocals and lead guitar on a track that harkens back to West’s original group, the Vagrants. Back in 1966, that group did a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” one of several tracks produced by Felix Pappalardi, who would go on to co-form Mountain with West. For Still Climbing, West and Lang cover Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” one of many reminders why West should be known for his deep-throated soul singing as well as his hot guitar licks. In fact, West credits his quitting smoking for the strength in his current delivery, which is one area he feels is dramatically improved in this release.
Speaking of ballsy vocals, the pairing of West with Snider on “Feeling Good” is another song underlining the albums themes of affirmation and survival. Written by Anthony Newley (co-writer of “Goldfinger,” speaking of a bravura vocal performance) and made famous by Nina Simone, Freda Payne, Bobby Darin, John Coltrane, and Traffic, among others, “Feeling Good” opens with a simple piano introduction before the singers take off with shouting blues choruses. To be honest, I didn’t know Snider could fit so well into a bluesy setting.
Of course, that is exactly the musical milieu you’d expect West and Johnny Winter would thrive in together, notably on the slide fest, “Busted, Disgusted or Dead.” Equally hard-edged songs include the album’s opener, “Dyin’ Since the Day I Was Born” (which Slash described as one of the heaviest songs West has ever done) and the crunching “Hatfield or McCoy”.
Not everything is so dramatic. A more romantic theme is evident in “Fade Into You,” which opens with acoustic folk rock verses before exploding into ’70s-era arena rock choruses complete with synthesizer support. The slow ballad, “Tales of Woe,” also has acoustic chords under fluid electric guitar lines punctuating the unhappy lyrics. “Not Over You at All” is gritty blues rock with very cool sax spicing up the bridges.
One strong echo of Mountain is in the hard-driving “Don’t Ever Let Me Go,” where West sings, “Tie me to the bed posts and never let me go.” Now that’s romance. But the most overt reference to West’s most famous band is a reworking of Mountain’s “Long Red,” a number that’s enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. It’s been sampled by Jay-Z, Common, and Kanye West. The Still Climbing version has former Vagrants-mate Larry West on bass and is the version Leslie West is doing on stage now. Speaking of bass players, the album closes with “Rev Jones Time (Somewhere Over the Rainbow),” a short version of a bass solo “Rev Jones” plays in stage shows. For trivia buffs, “Rev Jones” is actually Jim Jones Jr. Yes, that Jim Jones. No, he’s not a real reverend.
Co-produced by West and Mike Goldberg, Still Climbing is distinguished by, West claims in a recent interview I conducted, a big guitar sound played on four of his Dean signature model guitars with his Mountain of Tone humbucking pickups plugged into his Blackstar amps with no pedals. All the playing was loud and raw. That’s the way it should be.
So some things never change. When I saw Mountain and solo West concerts back in the day, they were indeed ear-bleeding loud and raw. In the comfort of my living room, Still Climbing can be set just right for Baby Boomer ears, but the young ‘uns can enjoy the power at setting 11 if they want to. The bottom line is—some guitar gods just keep getting better and better. With those pipes, Leslie West is the perfect rock and roll package to prove the founding fathers of hard rock and heavy metal can still teach upcoming generations a trick or two. And if younger players want to survive in the rock and roll world, the lessons Leslie West teaches are all about climbing and climbing for both triumph and renewal.