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Billy Sheehan

Prime Cuts

Review by Steve Alspach

Ever play a bass guitar? "Strings" are a misnomer - they use great big, fat, wires. You have to work up some muscle in your fingers to aptly play a bass. Listening to Billy Sheehan play bass, you know he's got some muscles in his fingers. Black holes would be no match for him - one poke and ka-BOOM! Sheehan is the master of quick riffs, blazing speed, but he also has an excellent ear and knows not only how to play but when to play.

Continuing their collection of Prime Cuts CD's from their roster, Magna Carta focuses on Billy Sheehan, bassist-beyond-extraordinaire. Sheehan is the premier bassist of power prog having worked early on with David Lee Roth and Mr. Big, and then joining up with Niacin and working with other musicians such as Terry Bozzio and Jordan Rudess. This is a short but precise compilation that shows the many facets of Sheehan's styles, and although I was somewhat familiar with Sheehan before hearing this, I'm sold. This guy is drop-your-jaw incredible.

There is also a small DVD clip of Sheehan in the studio, quite affable, discussing his life in music and some of his influences. This is a very nice addition to the CD and has some surprises (his favorite song is the Beatles' "If I Fell," for example - who would have guessed?). A snippet of him playing bass would have been a treat, but you can't have everything, I guess.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 4 at

Track by Track Review
Elbow Grease (from Niacin's Time Crunch album)
This is an excellent leadoff track and a great introduction to Sheehan's work. "Elbow Grease" has a very accessible main riff and shows off the talents of Sheehan, organist John Novello, and drummer Dennis Chambers. Sheehan matches Novello note for note in some places and Chambers' double-bass runs in others.

Sugar Blues (from Niacin's Deep album)
Niacin hang more in a moderate funk groove, but then band members trade riffs and short solos for the last three minutes over a bluesy fill. Novello is most restrained while Sheehan and Chambers go for the speed.

Sub Continent (from Terry Bozzio and Billy Sheehan's album Nine Short Films)
Far and away the most exploratory piece on this compliation, "Sub Continent" delves into eastern tonalities. Sheehan has a rather natural penchant for this kind of music as his solo early on demonstrates, and Bozzio holds down the fort with what sounds like an udu. (You've seen them - it looks like a clay pot with a hole on the side.) There are all sorts of hand percussion effects here - bells, hand chimes.

The Trees (from Working Man: A Tribute to Rush, various artists)
Rush's fable to government intervention gets paid homage here. Mike Baker does a good job with the vocals, and it's really Mike Portnoy who adds an extra bit of dash to Peart's drum lines. If you wanted to hear what Sheehan and Portnoy sound like as a rhythm unit, here's your chance.

Clean Up Crew / Do a Little Dirty Work (from Niacin's Blood, Sweat and Beers album)
Sheehan gets a short solo at first before the others join in. What is at first a rather simple groove still maintains its punch because of the excellent interplay between Sheehan and Chambers. At 4.14 Sheehan gets a short solo that almost sounds like a guitar fill. "Clean Up / Dirty Work" (and I'm not sure where one starts and the other ends, or if it's just one song with a slash in the title) sounds like something Niacin could play and still have one hand tied behind their backs, but it shows that they don't have to come at you full throttle to really be appreciated.

Crack the Meter (from Jordan Rudess' Feeding the Wheel album)
Sheehan, Rudess, Bozzio, and Steve Morse on guitar - I got'cher supergroup right here, pal. The song goes between 7/4 and 4/4, but there are some tricky passages here that the band handles effortlessly. Rudess employs a fairly wide range of keyboards, and some of his melodic lines sound rather Morse-like. Speaking of which, Steve gets a few short solos that show his fretwork ability. He and Rudess trade solos at the end, and Bozzio uses more of the Chinese cymbals to add a brash sound in the goings on. It takes musicians of this caliber to make you almost forget Sheehan's work.

Time Enough (More Than Enough Mix) (From the Explorers' Club Age of Impact album)
Power prog meets new age? Steve Howe gets lead duty early on with an acoustic solo while Trent Gardner plays a swooshy keyboard backdrop and Sheehan nimbly flits around Howe's lines without stepping over them. For a moment you think things will break loose when an electric guitar comes in, but that moment is short-lived and Howe comes back in with his Spanish-tinged solo.

Super Grande (from the Niacin Organik album)
Novello adds a piano to the piano, but then switches over to his signature Hammond B-3 sound. Niacin go back and forth between rock, laying down a 4/4 on Chambers' open hi-hat playing, then they go back to fusion, Novello's piano adding a dramatic effect. Novello then uses the organ to play an ethereal, extremely legato solo, piling notes over themselves. Of course, Sheehan's 32d-note playing in the background keeps this piece from settling.

Bass Solo (Buffalo 1994):
Some guitarists don't shred this fast - and the guy is playing a bass, okay? From a bootleg with a hand-held mic, Sheehan coaxes notes that you thought weren't possible from a bass guitar. Bent notes, harmonics, speed, slapping, hammer-ons, chording, neck-bending, you name it - every tool in Sheehan's arsenal comes out on this six-minute solo. At 3.19 he stops, perhaps to catch his breath for the next bit of playing. He comes out of the gate playing a dizzying flurry of notes and then, Good Lord as my witness, he gets the bass to sound like Hendrix' guitar.
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