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Black Country Communion

Black Country Communion 2

Supergroups can deliver or disappoint. It’s hard for a real music fan to pass by a venture that includes a musician or singer that he or she rates highly. For example, every Bowie fan will have bought the two Tin Machine albums, whether they admit it or not ! About half the tracks on those two studio lp’s were pretty good but with some real clinkers lurking around in the running orders. A live album was slightly more even. Back in the day, three blues artists got together to make an album called Triumvirate and initial sessions went badly. Ego’s settled and the trio of Mike Bloomfield, Doctor John and John Hammond set about cutting a record that strangely sounds better now than it did then. Eventually quality performers will bring out the best in each other. But not always.

The irresistible magnet here for this writer is the presence within Black Country Communion of one Glenn Hughes. Strangely, I have never met him BUT I have loads of his records and love his voice and understanding of soul as well as rock and blues and as for his cool bass playing…..well he leaves fantastic spaces which make  every other instrument playing sound terrific. Paul Kantner of Jefferson fame can do this on rhythm guitar, Morris Jennings the American drummer with Ramsay Lewis and countless others has the gift and the late jazz keyboard genius Larry Young ( Lifetime, John McLoughlin etc) had that ability. Hughes always swings and his singing is a heady rush of fresh air.

Photo by Mike Prior

Any band would love to have Derek Sherinian of Dream Theater aboard, in many ways he is the ultimate ensemble player. Every now and again his playing evokes the style of the late John Locke of L A rock eclecticists Spirit though I imagine one of his early influences would have been Keith Emerson, who I often saw in small clubs in my youth sticking knives into and grappling with his Hammond.  Drummer Jason Bonham is of course the son of John who was touring with Tim Rose the great US singer / songwriter not long before Led Zeppelin formed. Big shoes to fill if you play the same instrument as yer dad, but it never seems to have phased Jason at all. I suppose he has always hung out with major stars. Fourth member of BCC is guitar hotshot Joe Bonamassa, who had already gathered a large gang of admirers even before the passing of Gary Moore seemed to leave him as axeman of choice for those who like loud and heavy blues based rock riffing. To be frank, I have always found Bonamassa to be technically able but more flashy than soulful, most of the time.  Can Hughes steer him away from his occasional musical excesses ?

Mention must be made of producer Kevin Shirley as I think he has left his mark on the shape of this record, put down at East West Studios in Hollywood. Proper songs need a bit of developing to capture the individual assets of each selection. Shirley had doubts about the aggregation’s staying power due to personality foibles, but voicing them seem to have helped the group turn a corner and loosen up and play. Above all, readers – let’s remember that these guys don’t HAVE to do this, they must WANT to.

A cracking opening pace is set by ‘The Outsider’ with Glenn singing up a cyclone. The immediate feel is the ‘Burn’ era Deep Purple, rich organ chording et al. Guitar and keys trade speedy solo’s, they sue know what their audience want do these blokes! Riff heaven and leading into second cut ‘Man In The Middle’ with its jaggedy rhythm and spooky Sherinian keyboard tones and with an atypical Hughes vocal-led bridge. Out comes the acoustic guitar for ‘The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall’ which could be an outtake from Led Zep 111 in its ingredients. When the song heavies up, Bonham does sound incredibly like his father with his harsh but puddingy drum sound under the toppy delayed slide figures. This sort of sound&fury stuff was bound to be part of BCC’s canon…

Derek Sherinian shines on ‘Save Me’ and Hughes’ mountain-top floating voice glides across the mix. It ain’t long before The Riff kicks in though and it’s a Pagey job, for sure. The frantic ‘Smokestack Woman’ is another piledriver of a number, tricksy guitar figures  busy under the plaintive singing. It’s just like Hughes old band Trapeze !

The tremeloed guitar intro to the eastern-tinged ‘Faithless’ reminds me of something and will nag my brain til I recall it…

‘An Ordinary Son’ is easily the best effort as a crafted song included on this set, they seem to forget about sounding important and portentous and let the Free-style song roll its natural course. Hughes’ wonderfully-paced bass is stately and simultaneously organic giving a fine bed for the piano runs. Anyone else sensing a Steve Marriott-tinge on this particular one ? ‘ I Can See Your Spirit’ is a bit paint-by-numbers ‘eavy rock after this and ‘Little Secret’ too Gary Moore but the moody ‘Crossfire’ is much more like it. ‘Cold’ truly chills the close of this album, ambient synth clouds adding a fusion wash as Hughes sings out his despair as only he can.

Well, Black Country Communion are sounding more like a group now and most of this is listenable, some of it is brilliant. Bonham though is a pure rock drummer and no Clive Bunker or Mitch Mitchell, sometimes a jazz or latin slant would have provided some variety. Bonamassa works thoughtfully but seems to need to play too much at times. Sherinian is classy throughout and Hughes is his splendid self. If you are new to Glenn’s work, seek out his set with Pat Thrall called ‘Hughes Thrall’ where powerful songs rule or better still his ferocious and funky burn-up of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ which is on one of funk guitar ace Steve Salas’ albums. You will thank me !

Ah yes !! got it  – the squeezed-tone guitar on ‘Faithless’ is very like that on Taj Mahal’s ‘Do I Love Her’ on his ‘Taj’ album – that’s saved me a few sleepless nights…

Pete Sargeant

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