There’s a saying, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. If old rockers keep putting out albums it seems we’re going to have come up with something similar to say about old musicians. While some of them probably should have hung up their gear ages ago, others seem to epitomize Dylan Thomas’ famous line of refusing to go gentle into that good night. While they may not have the vocal range they once did or be quite as quick moving up and down the fretboard of their guitars, they still play with passion and soul. These are the type of guys you could visualize spontaneously combusting on stage rather than their lights slowly dimming.
Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg are veterans of the pop music wars with both of them first coming to public attention in the 1960s. Goldberg is probably not as well known, he was part of the Chicago electric blues scene of the 1960s and was a keyboardist with Electric Flag and Bob Dylan when he was booed off stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Stills is of course internationally known for both his solo work and the bands he was part of, Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to name two. Either one of them has been probably playing music for more years then Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been alive. However, that hasn’t stopped them from teaming up with the younger man to form the new blues rock band The Rides whose new recording, Can’t Get Enough, is being released on 429 Records August 27, 2013.
There aren’t many older musicians who would willingly share the stage with a young blood like Shepherd who could easily leave them in the dust. Conversely there aren’t many up and coming guitar heroes who would think playing with a couple of old guys wasn’t just a waste of time. So just the fact the three of them have joined forces on what seems to be a semi-permanent fashion says a lot about their commitment to music. It’s that dedication to their art which takes the fairly standard blues rock numbers on this disc and makes them something a little extraordinary.
You hear the type of music found on this disc played in venues all around the world by musicians of all calibers. Ninety percent of the time this type of blues rock isn’t going to sound much different no matter who plays it. It takes a lot of work to make it sound bad, but at the same time it takes some pretty special musicians to made it sound special. While the first song on this disc, “Roadhouse”, is a fairly typical number of the type. The lyrics about the life of a bar band musician have a certain poignancy which elevates it beyond just another blues-based rock song. Anybody who’s ever been in a large roadhouse watching a band sweat on stage as they try and compete with large-screen TVs for an audience’s attention will appreciate what its expressing.
One of the things you’ll notice about the recording is the immediacy of the sound. This is because the band made the wise decision to record themselves live. Rather than each of them laying down their parts separately in little glass booths while listening to everybody else on headphones, they played together in the studio, only laying down the vocal tracks later. This allows Still and Shepherd as the guitar players to feed off each other’s work. It gives their songs the spontaneous quality this type of music needs to have at its best. Goldberg’s keyboard complementing what they’re doing only works as well as it does because he’s in the room anticipating what the two guitars are going to do next. There’s a sense of unity in their playing you don’t often find in studio recordings.
Of the 10 tracks on the disc, four are originals Goldberg, Shepherd and Stills wrote for the disc, five are covers and one, the album’s closing track “Word Game” Stills wrote in the late 1960s for Buffalo Springfield but never recorded. The covers are an interesting mix of classic blues numbers, “Talk to Me Baby” by Elmore James and “Honey Bee” by Muddy Waters, and rockers, “Search and Destroy” by Iggy and The Stooges and “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Still’s old buddy Neil Young. Hearing Stills sing the latter is an interesting experience, especially if you’re familiar with any of the work he and Young did together in the past. For although it sounds substantially different than Young’s version, it stills sounds right. It’s like Stills has an affinity for Young’s material based on their years of friendship which allows him to make the song effortlessly his own, while still honouring its original intent.
Stills and Shepherd split the vocal duties on the disc. While Shepherd’s voice, by dint of age and not having seen quite as much hard living, is stronger and has more of a range, Stills’ ability to find the emotional honesty at a song’s core remains undamaged. His raw passion on “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Word Game” give both songs the fire needed to make them work. Maybe somebody else could have made them sound better, but he’s able to bring them alive and get their meaning across in a way few can.
Normally on an album of this type the spotlight shines brightest on the guitar players. While in this case the playing of Stills and Shepherd would actually justify them being the centre of attention for the entire album, it is a trio and Goldberg’s keyboard is given its rightful place in the mix. While that doesn’t mean songs are tagged with unnecessary piano or organ solos. His presence is felt on almost every song. Whether playing the role of lead rhythm instrument as the two guitars exchange leads or giving the songs an extra layer of texture, Goldberg’s playing is integral to every song. He gives the more traditional blues songs that extra bit of melancholy needed by smoothing out the rough edges of the guitar-laden sound, while at the same time adding an urgency to harder numbers. There’s only so much guitars, bass and drums can do on their own without becoming somewhat predictable and Goldberg adds the extra element required to ensure the sound never falls into a rut.
It would be easy for older players like Stills and Goldberg to rest on their laurels and quietly fade away as guys who were famous once upon a time. Instead here they are putting themselves out on the front lines again playing with somebody who could very easily make them look old and tired. Instead, they prove, at least in their case, old rockers don’t fade away, they just find new ways of keeping themselves inspired. The combination of Shepherd, Stills and Goldberg, the old and the new, could be seen as the torch being passed from one generation to the next. However in this case it represents a meeting of equals who aren’t out to prove anything except how much they love what they do.