REVIEW: Paul Gilbert & Freddie Nelson – United States

Paul Gilbert and Freddie Nelson’s album seemingly appeared from nowhere: Paul mentioned in a news update on his site that he’d completed recording a new CD, and a few weeks later it was released in Japan. A worldwide release is yet to be announced, so for now this album is only available on import. I bought mine here at CDJapan.co.jp and it was delivered in exactly 1 week. Woo!

The collaboration with the not-very-well-known-yet Nelson marks Gilbert’s return to vocal music after two highly successful and progressively brilliant instrumental albums, Get Out Of My Yard and Silence Followed By A Deafening Roar. The material has a different vibe to Gilbert’s solo stuff: you can really hear him enjoying just being the guitarist again like in Mr Big. The songs have lots of wild guitar playing, but the focus is on the vocal melody, and while you can particularly hear Gilbert’s melodic influence on the opening track, ‘Paris Hilton Look-Alike,’ often the vocal melodies come from a different place to those Gilbert sings on his own solo material. Nelson’s notes often seem to ride above the fundamental tones of the chord, rather than following them like Gilbert’s tend to (which is not to discount the inherent coolness of Gilbert’s melodies).

There may have been a temptation to take these songs and make them all FM-radio slick, but instead the drums sound natural and ambient, the guitars are warm and round, and there’s a live, seat-of-the-pants vibe to a lot of the material. Gilbert’s obviously enjoying the softer sounds of his Marshall Vintage Modern combo, and the sizzling treble of much of his solo stuff is completely absent here.

Nelson has been compared to Freddie Mercury (which makes me wonder, is Freddie his real name, or is it a nickname that was prompted by his love of Queen?), and while his voice itself isn’t overly distinctive, his control and range remind me of Jeff Buckley without the shakiness, or Richie Kotzen without the gravel. He has a very smooth, natural tone which perfectly suits the softer guitar tones.

So let’s look at the album track by track:

Paris Hilton Look-Alike. Thematically, this one reminds me of ‘Every Hot Girl Is A Rock Star’ from Paul’s ‘Space Ship One’ album. Musically it’s the most Gilbert-esque track on the album, and therefore a good introduction for what’s to come. Nelson hits some very natural, unforced falsetto notes, showing off his Freddie Mercury influence.

Waste of Time. Heavy on the melody, and a lot more uptempo than track one. Kicks the album up a notch, pointing to more awesome rock power to come.

The Last Rock N’ Roll Star. This one features a crazy riff in 6/8, and chugging verses that remind me a little of Van Halen’s ‘Judgement Day.’ There’s a mega-fast solo which will put to rest any lingering fears guitar fans might have that Gilbert is saving his best licks for his solo instrumental stuff these days.

Bad Times Good. A bit of an Aerosmith vibe, with a stomping 4-on-the-floor groove and some melodic, old-school rock solos. It sounds like Gilbert and Nelson trade solos on this track, with Freddie on the left and Paul on the right.

Hideaway. Another song that reminds me a little of stuff from ‘Space Ship One.’ A mid-tempo track with long vocal notes creating a nice contrast to the palm-muted riffage. There are some unusual, atmospheric chord choices in the chorus.

The Answer. I love this one. It sounds like it could fit on Gilbert’s ‘Flying Dog’ album. There’s a nice 12-string acoustic intro before a chunky riff kicks in, capped off by a waltzy chorus and another ultra-fast solo. Gilbert’s not afraid to slam it into higher gear on this material.

I’m Free. Very cool vocal harmonies, which sound like they’re achieved by sampling Nelson then playing the notes back on keyboard. This one has a spacey, ethereal vibe – yet there’s still an over-the-top shred solo, broken up by some soulful sustained notes and melodies. But lots of shred. Did I say shred? Just checkin’. Cos so far there’s lots of it.

Pulsar. This one has a very funky riff which reminds me of some stuff from Mr Big’s ‘Hey Man’ album, or the way the ‘Space Ship One’ track ‘Interaction’ moves between extended guitar figures and vocal interjections. There’s a change to 3/4 time in the middle for an evil high-speed Black Sabbath vibe, along with a cool harmony solo.

Girl From Omaha. A slightly Weezer-ish chorus, backed up by funky synth sounds and an almost pop-punk riff, in a similar vein to some of the stuff from Paul’s solo debut, ‘King of Clubs.’

I’m Not Addicted. An uptempo track and great way to close out the album or a gig. This one features those famous ADA Flanger sweeps Gilbert is so known for, yet he never overuses this signature sound. A good singalong song and I imagine this one will also be lots of fun to play on guitar.

This is an interesting and unique departure for Gilbert: more hard rock than his own vocal songs, less polished than Mr Big, and more easily accessible to non-musicians than his instrumentals, despite being full of astounding technique. With some major label money behind him I could see this album doing quite well in the US, and while I hope Gilbert never stops doing his own vocal and instrumental albums, I can’t wait to hear what these guys come up with next.

WHD Entertainment

CLICK HERE to buy Paul Gilbert & Freddie Nelson’s ‘United States’ from CDJapan.co.jp

REVIEW: Def Leppard & Cheap Trick

Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, Australia, November 3, 2008

Before I jump into this review, a little background. I turned 10 in 1988. I know some of you were probably at the end of your rockin’ teens then, and others of you weren’t even born yet. But for me, at the age of 9 years and 51 weeks, all I could think about was Def Leppard. I didn’t even have an album yet, but I videotaped a few songs off the TV (on Beta video tape: ask your history teacher), and I was an expert at drawing the Def Leppard logo on my pencil case, in between Voltron and Santa. I begged and pleaded to my parents: my birthday’s coming up, please please please please please can I have Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’ tape?

My birthday finally rolls around. My first present is an awesome, 80s-style boom box with TWO TAPE DECKS and, oh sweet lord, a 5-band graphic EQ. I thought this was instantly the coolest thing in the world. My next present was obviously a cassette, all wrapped up and bursting with rock potential. This was my Def Leppard tape! Finally I could embark upon my life as a little denim-clad rocker. Before that, I listened to The Beatles, Paul McCartney & Wings, and Songs Of A Psychedelic Age, a double cassette set my dad had, which included not only Jimi Hendrix and Cream, but also an ad for a Vox wah wah. Awesome. But I digress: My shaky little hands nervously unwrap the cassette, and I hold my breath as I await the first sight of my very own cassette copy of Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria.’

What do I see instead?

Jason Donovan’s ‘Ten Good Reasons.’

Now, for those of you who don’t know who Jason Donovan is, he was an actor on an Australian soap, and he made an ill-advised foray into pop music. This video will tell you all you need to know.

Of course, being a whiny little 10 year old, I begged, pleaded and cried until I got ‘Hysteria’ too, and to this day I still have that very cassette. It’s in my car’s glove box right now.

Anyway, enough of that. On to the review of Cheap Trick and Def Leppard at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena.

Cheap Trick were initially supposed to come to Australia last year as part of a double bill with Thin Lizzy, but that tour fell through. It seems that plans to come to Australia often fall through for the band: guitarist Rick Nielsen famously planned to move here in 1972 but changed his mind when the immigration department wouldn’t let him bring his dog). Despite vocalist Robin Zander nursing a sore throat and feeling a bit under the weather, the band still put on an energetic, powerful show. Never having seen them before, I’m not sure if Nielsen usually does the majority of between-song banter, or if he was covering for Zander, but he was a huge part of keeping the show flowing, even taking a vote from the audience on whether he should keep a guitar given to him by a local luthier (he seemed pretty unhappy with the axe from where I was sitting, and elected to ditch it). Nielsen threw about a trillion guitar picks into the audience over the course of the night (sometimes whole fistfuls at once; sometimes flicked from under his leg, sometimes used to strum a single chord before being skimmed into the crowd), and he brought out a few gems from his famous guitar collection, including various Hamer Standards, a few Gibson Les Pauls, and his legendary 5-necked beast which, in the true spirit of rock excess, he used for only about a minute or so during ‘Goodbye Now.’

Cheap Trick played the songs I expected: ‘Surrender,’ ‘Dream Police,’ ‘I Want You To Want Me.’ But the big surprise for me was their 80s hit ‘The Flame.’ I’d read that the band were particularly unhappy with this power ballad, and I just assumed they wouldn’t play it. But they did, and it was one of the highlights for me, not because it’s a lighter-waving anthem or, like, so beautiful, man, but because they played it with a sense of irony and pisstake-ism, with loud lead guitars and Neilson’s exaggerated backing vocals. Zander missed one particular high note each time it came up, but that was the only real sign of his vocal woes. Nielsen’s playing was sloppy and edgy, sometimes suffering from his constant pick-flinging, but it contributed to the party vibe of the set. The crowd was a little restrained for the most part and you could pretty much hear about 50% of the audience saying “Oh, Cheap Trick is THAT band” whenever one of the big hits was played

Def Leppard burst out to the techno-tribal drum thump of ‘Rocket,’ one of the songs I taped off the TV way back when. The set leaned heavily on the ‘Hysteria’ album as well as a few tracks from ‘Pyromania’ and ‘Adrenalize’: ‘Animal,’ ‘Love Bites,’ ‘Hysteria,’ ‘Armageddon It,’ ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me,’ ‘Rock Of Ages,’ ‘Photograph,’ ‘Make Love Like A Man’ and ‘Let’s Get Rocked.’ From ‘High ‘n’ Dry’ they played ‘Bringin’ On The Heartbreak,’ and the instrumental ‘Switch 625’ also got a showing – an interesting choice since neither Phil Collen nor Vivian Campbell were in the band when this guitar showcase was written.

They also played ‘Two Steps Behind’ and ‘When Love And Hate Collide,’ and there were two tracks off the latest album, ‘Songs From The Sparkle Lounge,’ which were well received by the crowd even though most of the audience looked like they hadn’t bought a new album since about 1991.

It was surprising to hear those highly-overdubbed songs reorganised in the context of two guitars and five vocalists (even five voices can sound minimal when the original songs featured such heavy layering). The band sounded slick and they weren’t afraid to throw in some improvisation here and there. Singer Joe Elliott stuck largely to the recorded vocal melodies, which was actually kinda refreshing, since so many singers seem to get bored live, and start shifting around notes and rhythms.

I was especially impressed by the guitar playing of Phil Collen (one of my very early guitar heroes, I must admit). He punctuated melodies with wild squeals and sustained notes from his signature Jackson guitars, and wasn’t afraid to bring out the shred licks when necessary. Vivian Campbell, too, had his fair share of pyrotechnic moments, playing a sparkly Gibson Les Paul for most of the set and taking a few respectful liberties with original guitarist Steve Clark’s solos.

While I found myself enjoying the looser rock vibe of Cheap Trick more than the slick showmanship of Def Leppard, I still enjoyed the hell out of both bands, and while I don’t listen do Def Leppard much any more these days (a dude tends to move on once he discovers Frank Zappa and Mike Keneally), I’m glad I finally got to see them, 20 years (!!!) after unwrapping that Jason Donovan tape.

CLICK HERE to by Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’
CLICK HERE to buy Def Leppard’s ‘Songs From The Sparkle Lounge’
CLICK HERE to buy the Japanese version of Cheap Trick’s At Budokan: The Complete Concert [with bonus DVD]