“I like to joke that the older I get the better I used to be,” six-string legend Leslie West observes. “But after giving up drugs and smoking, my voice can hit notes that I never could reach before and my guitar playing is still like a brick house. I’m thankful for that.”
The proof is all over West’s brand new album Still Climbing. At nearly 68-years-old he’s packed some of the most soulful and searing vocal performances of his half-century career into these 11 tracks, and, indeed, his guitar has never sounded more massive or riff-propelled.
West, who ascended rock’s Mt. Olympus with his band Mountain — and a Gibson Les Paul Junior in his hands — during a historic performance at 1969’s Woodstock festival, accomplished all that despite a life threatening battle with diabetes that cost him most of his right leg in 2011, just after his previous album The Unusual Suspects was recorded.
“I’m lucky it wasn’t one of my hands or I’d be screwed,” West says with his customary candor. “It was a difficult struggle, and after the amputation I didn’t know whether I’d ever want to or be able to perform again. But a month later I played at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp in New York City, and I heard my guitar on stage and that was it. I knew I had to keep going.
“This record is a sequel to The Unusual Suspects, where I had Slash, Zakk Wylde and other friends come to the studio and play,” West explains. This time Jonny Lang, Johnny Winter, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snyder and Creed’s Mark Tremonti do the honors.
“What’s different on Still Climbing is that I wanted my guitars to sound as big as I look. I plugged them into my amps — no pedals — and turned them up loud and raw, and what you hear is exactly what I did in the studio. I played one of the early tracks we recorded for Slash, and he said, ‘That is as heavy as it gets.’ ”
Still Climbing , which was co-produced by West and his drummer Mike “Metal” Goldberg, also benefits from Goldberg’s sterling engineering and a mix by Mike Fraser, who’s worked with AC/DC, Rush, Joe Satriani, Bad Company and many others.
But Slash is right. Songs like the epic guitar flare-up “Dying Since the Day I Was Born,” the bone crunching “Hatfield or McCoy,” and the blues-rock monolith “Busted, Disgusted or Dead” establish a new litmus test for “heavy.” The latter features West and Winter on dueling slide guitars. Both men have been friends since the Woodstock era, and in recent years they’ve toured together and kicked methadone addiction.
“We’re thinking we should write a book about that experience,” West relates. “Everybody talks about being addicted to heroin or cocaine, but methadone, which is a synthetic opiate used to get you off of heroin, will grab hold of you and not let go.”
West also gave up smoking cigarettes and pot after a bout with bladder cancer, so it’s no wonder many of Still Climbing’s numbers explore the theme of survival.
To that end, West avows, “Not only am I lucky to be here, but because I stopped smoking my voice is now stronger than it’s ever been — as strong as my guitar playing.” His inclusion of “Feeling Good,” a song by British actor-musician Anthony Newley that was made famous by Steve Winwood’s group Traffic, is a testimonial to all of that. Its lyrics celebrate a “new dawn for me” as West and his longtime buddy Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister engage in vocal pyrotechnics, trading lines.
The truth is, West has always been an outstanding vocalist, earning comparisons to soul legends like Otis Redding since his 1969 debut Mountain, which gave his historic band its name. On Still Climbing West revisits the catalog of another classic soul man, Percy Sledge, with the enduring “When a Man Loves a Women.” He’s joined on the song by blues-rock phenomenon Jonny Lang, who he met 15 years ago when Lang was a rising guitar prodigy. West says they cut the tune side-by-side in the studio.
“When a Man Loves a Woman,” the galloping “Never Let Me Go” and the sweeping acoustic-electric “Fade Into You” explore yet another of the album’s themes: romance. In 2009 West married his wife Jenni, who co-wrote many of Still Climbing’s songs with the guitar giant. They exchanged vows on stage at the Woodstock 40th anniversary concert. West credits her with saving his life — first with her love, and then by making the difficult decision to permit his doctors to amputate while he was in a coma.
West has been performing since 1965, when he fronted the soul-fired Vagrants in his native New York City. After that group opened for Eric Clapton and Cream, West was inspired to begin his lifelong devotion to crafting the big, alluring guitar riffs that are the framework of all of his songs. Seeing Jimi Hendrix cemented that strategy, which has earned West the number 66 slot on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” and the support of several generations of fans all over the world.
A bevy of platinum and gold albums on West’s office wall comprise yet another tribute to the enduring appeal of his music. They’re for top selling rap recordings built around samples from “Long Red,” which appeared on the Mountain album. Jay-Z tapped the tune for his 2004 mega-smash “99 Problems.” So did Kanye West, for “The Glory.” Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” and Common’s “The People” along with tunes by De La Soul, the Game, A Tribe Called Quest and EPMD also borrow from West’s song, which he rerecorded for Still Climbing with his brother and former Vagrants-mate Larry West on bass.
“I thought it was time for me to let people hear that song the way I do it again, but this time I used B-3 organ on it and it has a bit more balls,” West relates.