|Progressive Rock CD Reviews|
Snowy White and The White Flames
Review by Bruce Stringer
British blues legend Snowy White’s latest offering is an excellent live recording of moody, spatial music with rare a finesse and intelligence. As White’s first full-length live album (- not including the bonus The Way It Is… Live CD) it is a journey into the netherworld of modern ethereal blues with a “chill-up-your-spine” eeriness that simply draws the listener in. If there was ever a crossbreed between Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and the spacey wanderings of Pink Floyd, this is what it might sound like.
The musicianship on Live Flames is incredibly tight and at the high end of the proficient scale. White’s guitar work is not to be sniffed at and he has surrounded himself with the cream of Europe’s finest talent. Juan van Emmerloot may not be a household name in the US, but he is internationally famous from his work with Valentine and is The Netherland’s answer to a Terry Bozzio or Vinnie Colaiuta. Not a bad drummer for a stand-up comedian. Likewise, Walter Latupeirissa (on bass) could be a Dutch-Indonesian answer to Stanley Clarke, sans the streetwise attitude. Max Middleton is internationally renowned for his work with Jeff Beck so needs no introduction. Snowy White is a multifaceted anti-hero, a painfully normal person with an artistic ability that endears him to music fans (and women) worldwide. He is fruit borne of the lineage of great British blues musicians and continues to produce some of the most inspired guitar work I have ever heard. This live CD release is 70 minutes of “the good stuff” and should see older fans satisfied, while winning over new fans!
[Editor’s Note – This is included in the progressive rock section because of the somewhat prog rock nature of the music and White’s work with Roger Waters]
|Track by Track Review
|I’ll Be Moving On|
Armed with his Gold Top, White is a rare one, indeed! He manages to pull out some of the most subtle, clean sounds that I’ve ever heard from a humbucking Les Paul but – as any fan knows – he has the ability to rip out some of the most ear-shattering blues lines in an instant. Never losing “the feel,” “I’ll Be Moving On” moves along at a relaxed pace allowing White to do what he does best. With the vocal narrative of a smokes-free Leonard Cohen or Peter Green, his distinct style is as much part of the music as his iconic guitar. Interestingly, this track utilizes a device that White employed on “At The Crossroads” (from his debut album, White Flames), which is a very simple, repetitive structure of two chords. The song builds and falls away and is finally brought to an almost silent outro, fading away – a great dynamic in the live context.
|That Ain't Right|
White has continued to produce genuine modern blues classics, insisting on originality over the inevitable blues cliché, and striking at the heart of his Gold Top like it were his final musical statement. There is an uncommon intensity to the White Flames band that is both brooding yet welcoming, something akin to an unspoken, commonality shared by all, which is where the band’s strength may lay. Lyrics like “She don’t love me in the night and she hates me in the day” are purely whimsical, yet something most people, at one time or another, could relate to and silently chuckle at. The percussive drum work by Juan van Emmerloot is something to behold. I was lucky enough to experience an early live version of “That Ain’t Right” (during a show in Germany some years back) which was primarily a happy tune utilizing 7th chords. This version has an ominous quality to it that is more suited to the newer lineup, employing minor-7th’s in place of the nicer alternatives.
|What I'm Searching For|
Focusing on a “happier” or major key sound, this track includes rhythmic conga / bongo percussion accompanying the guitar and voice before bursting into a late ‘60’s Santana-like groove. But it dares to go one step further, merging with a pronounced moodiness. White’s lyrical guitar work is sublime and timeless and works like a charm over that old device of building tension with a two-chord refrain. He now plays (mostly) without a plectrum – something I recently asked him about – and, truth is, this is something he has experimented with for a number of decades and not because of his connection to or inspiration from Jeff Beck. The musical spectrum is full, again with percussive tom work from Van Emmerloot and Latupeirissa’s fulfilling bass grooves. “What I’m Searching For” trails off into the signature piano line for “Land Of Plenty.“
|Land of Plenty|
Originally performed as part of The Blues Agency (and sung by Graham Bell), this version has been re-arranged with Max Middleton’s piano arpeggios creating a mood of distance and longing. Both arrangements are excellent, but for the purposes of this live lineup the slide guitar / piano format is superior. White’s soft-spoken words make the listener all the more attentive. Middleton’s wonderfully conversational piano solo over a bed of moody slide guitar (with themes reminiscent of Bryan Ferry’s solo work) is a real highlight.
|Time Waits For No Man|
“Time Waits…” is a blues-rock number and an interesting vehicle for White’s unique philosophical thoughts. It is through songs like this that you can see where he has brought the message of the blues to a contemporary audience and worked it in a digestible format. The chemistry of the band is that of seasoned players, mature yet dynamically experimental. The odd-time bridge section is evidence of the experimentation that these guys have with alternate time signature. And White has gone on record as saying that he doesn’t see any connection between progressive rock and what he does!
|A Miracle I Need|
From the iconic No Faith Required album, “A Miracle I Need” is a standout live number, showcasing the skills of van Emmerloot’s prowess on drums (- hey, where did that Jamaican drum fill come from?), Latupeirissa’s Jaco-inspired bass fusion and White’s manic, meowing wah-guitar work. I have experienced heavier versions of this track so I would guess that Middleton’s inclusion in the line-up has made for more space, more openness for interaction. Where once there were three, now there are four. Although there is a real ‘jam’ element to the elongated solo section at no time do these guys ever lose control. A group of lesser musicians, I doubt, would be able to tackle such an undertaking in it’s intricacy.
As a new piece, “Wintersong” is also the first to combine the unique writing talents of ex-Jeff Beck keys man Middleton and White. Segueing from “Miracle…” Middleton’s piano playing strays the blurry lines between blues and jazz with ease and confidence, allowing him to take in Latin and classical disciplines along his way. There is an emotional, nostalgic element in Middleton’s finger work and is reminiscent of his incredible playing on his recent solo release, Land Of Secrets. He has an uncanny ability to build tension – even in the quietest moments, as any fan of Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow would know. “Wintersong” is an exciting departure from the other tracks on this CD. And how could these guys follow that up?
|The Emmerpeirissa Express|
This is the TomKat of modern jazz-rock fusion, named after its chief prankster, Juan van Emmerloot, and cool-under-rapid-fire bass man, Walter Latupeirissa, “…Express” is an all-out bass and drums improvisation that ends way too soon. Blasting away like the solo section from a Stanley Clarke number, the guys have a great chemistry and are tighter than the average bear! Being a duo of two of Europe’s leading musicians it is a pity that they are not more recognized in the US, alongside this great nation’s musical illuminati.
This is something you might expect from a late night visit to a blues club. Light and self-resolving, this blues sets up a cooler mood than some of the rockier numbers on this CD. White’s guitar sound is ready to burst, dirty, fat and compressed. His artistry as a leading blues guitarist stands out on ethereal blues tracks like this. Yet it is the simplicity in the format that allow for the complexities of the White “feel” to come across so strong. This would rate very high on my list of blues guitar solos – never overstated, never stereotypical.
My first meeting with White at the Orange Club in London gave me the chance to experience this dynamic number from No Faith Required. Although I believe it was used as the closing number of that particular tour (in the late ‘90’s), it was a chance for the White Flames to individually improvise over some riffy rock and kooky time signatures (varying from straight 4/4 to 9/8 and beyond). The song lyrics hark back to the “American Dream” of yore and, I suppose, what many visitors to the States look for upon their arrival. Van Emmerloot’s dynamic skin pounding propels “American Dream” along at a feisty pace. White’s solo remains true to the original studio version but is developed further… nastier, and with slap-back echo! The false endings are a great live illusion that the White Flames Band have come to master over the years. Middleton remains in the background through most of this live number although he makes a nice little appearance to close the tracks.
|Long Grey Mare|
This Peter Green-penned track appears in White’s set list in the way that “Black Magic Woman” has appeared and, I guess, other Green songs will in years to come. A very interesting story on how White and Green met and became friends (- a tale too long for this review), would indicate an unspoken kinship and loyalty that is rare in the music industry.
Back to the CD! This track is fun and allows Van Emmerloot to knockabout on a cowbell, while Middleton and Latupeirissa carry the backing with a jovial tipping of the hat to Mr. Green. White pulls out some great licks, holding back and then bending with an unresolved flick of the wrist. Sounding at times like a lounge jazz piece and, alternately, like the boys are borrowing from their Latin brethren “Long Grey Mare” is a nice departure from the intensity of some of White’s material.
|That's When I'll Stop Loving You|
Tight but loose, this is cool but hot! This number pumps along with bridge-pickup Gold Top chords and obnoxious lead lines. That darn guitar has a life of its own when in the hands of a master like Mr. White. The song lends itself to a fatter US blues sound, along the lines of an upbeat Stevie Ray Vaughan number, complete with Hammond organ fills. For a bluesy number like this, it does have enough key changes and syncopated interaction to warrant a rethink. The lyrics are pretty straight forward, but who says that every song needs to be an intensive lesson in the English language or the human condition? Besides, guys like White can take simplicity and turn it into magic! Another false ending sets up a double bass drum workout for Van Emmerloot. The end is like an apocalyptic cacophony of sonic violence. Drumsticks smash at cymbals, skins and rims with lightning speed, cracked fingers fly across the splitting ebony and ivory of keys, re-animated bass strings moan about with the belted pain of a bleeding thumb and one very severely punished Gibson Gold Top is choked (almost) into oblivion.