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RIDGEFIELD — It only takes a few whacks of a cowbell and four distinct notes to launch most hard rocking fans into an instant sing-along to Leslie West’s “Mississippi Queen.” They can sing along again to one of the music business’s most sought-after guitarists when he rolls into Connecticut on March 18.
In a chat with West ahead of his Ridgefield Playhouse set, the no longer hulking frontman told The Newtown Bee he is still ready, willing, and more than able to deliver the mountain-sized guitar riffs fans crave — and that shake newcomers out of their seats.
Drawing a multigenerational audience as an original and 40th Anniversary returning Woodstock alumnus — he was married on stage at the latter event — West has jammed with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Slash.
His list of collaborations is vast, encompassing artists with a variety of playing styles who all felt the gravitational pull to lay down a few power chords with West.
Some of those “other” playing partners happen to be megastars like Billy Joel, Van Halen, The Who, and Mick Jagger. He has also performed or recorded with Al Kooper, Bo Diddley, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, Joe Bonamassa, Warren Haynes, Zakk Wylde, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and Ozzy Osbourne.
To new generation fans, his intro to “Long Red” is among hip hop’s most sampled licks, with Mariah Carey, Kidd Rock, Ghostface Killah, Eminem, and another West — named Kanye — being among more than 400 other artists utilizing his riff on their records.
In November 2015, West released his 60th studio album, Soundcheck. Not to further drop names, but the album featured appearances by Peter Frampton, Queen’s Brian May, and the late Jack Bruce of Cream.
Incorporating classic rock styles with elements like distorted guitar and looping electronic effects, Soundcheck showcases 11 tracks — a combination of originals and covers including “Stand By Me” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
Looking back, West first met longtime colleague Felix Pappalardi when he was working with Cream on the album Disraeli Gears, and in 1969 they formed their pioneering hard rock band Mountain — hailed as an even “louder version of Cream” by Rolling Stone. Mountain’s original incarnation saw West and Pappalardi sharing lead vocals and playing guitar and bass respectively, launching a 30-plus-year career and pegging the band among the originators of “heavy metal.”
Flash forward to 2015 and Rolling Stone was still paying attention to Leslie West, naming him among its “Top 100 Guitarists of All Time.”
Attendees to the March 18 show in Ridgefield will be sure to hear “Mississippi Queen,” along with 70s rock radio anthems “Theme From An Imaginary Western,” “Nantucket Sleighride,” along with West, Bruce and Laing’s “Why Dontcha.” West might also toss in his popular 1975 cover of “House of the Rising Sun.”
So, what did one of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time have to say?
The Newtown Bee: I love your Facebook page with that sound meter photo pegged into the red — do you still play really loud around the house?
Leslie West: I actually still play all the time because we’re still developing new guitars for Dean [which issues the Leslie West signature electric guitar line]. So as we’re working on the guitars I get to practice. We have about five models right now. A couple of weeks ago the CEO of the company Elliott Rubinson passed away. Very sad — he was a great guy.
The Bee: Back in the day was it all about cranking it up and stomping on that fuzz box to get your hard rocking sound?
West: I never used a fuzz box; I used a gain pedal back then. And now I’m using Blackstar amps which have a fantastic sound, and the effects are all built right in. I use a delay and an octave box — and a couple of other pedals, but mostly I’m getting that sound from the amp.
The Bee: Tell me about who will be backing you when we see you up in Ridgefield on March 18.
West: I’ve got Bobby Rondinelli on drums, who played for awhile with The Scorpions, you know, “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” and Peter Barron on bass. I’ve played with him for a long, long time.
The Bee: What have you been doing since you released Soundcheck?
West: There’s a brand-new digital magazine called Music Aficionado — and they asked me to write an article. So I got an idea to interview some of the people I know — to come at it from a different perspective. So I started off with Howard Stern. Howard has great taste in rock music. He’s a judge on America’s Got Talent, and he really knows his music. And I interviewed another friend, a guitar player named Waddy Wachtel, who taught me how to play guitar. We grew up in the same building.
The Bee: Waddy is incredible. Stylistically you guys are a little different, though.
West: He can play with anybody.
The Bee: Well, you do all right, too, Leslie. You’ve played with a few other legends — like a hundred of them.
West: I appreciate that, believe me. I did pretty good. But you don’t just have to be good, you have to be lucky. One of the things I do is license some of my songs out to Hip Hop and Rap artists. They sample me. Kanye West and Eminem have used my music.
The Bee: Is that a bittersweet thing, or is it good to expose your music to audiences that otherwise might not have heard them?
West: That’s the thing. Like with Kanye West. I may not be a particularly big fan of his, but he sampled a couple of my songs. And Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” is one of my favorite songs. So they call up my publisher for permission — did the right thing. I’ll tell you it doesn’t hurt to see a few extra Platinum albums on the wall, and also a few extra checks in the bank. That’s one of the extra benefits that comes along with the exposure. It’s something I never planned to begin with.
The Bee: You’re one of those artists with a song where you only have to hear a couple of notes, and it instantly transports you back to a specific place in time. That’s what makes “Mississippi Queen” something special.
West: It’s a great feeling — and it’s something you never even expect.
The Bee: So how does Leslie West get into the same room with a guy like Slash from Guns N’ Roses?
West: Well every year Rolling Stone puts out a list of the Top 100 guitar players. And the last time I looked I was number 65, and Slash was 64. So I called him up and said “Slash, we’re next to each other in this top guitarists of all time, but you should be in the top 20.” And he says, “I’m lucky to be in any survey.” Lucky my ass. He just played Dubai the other night in front of 50,000 people with Guns N’ Roses. He was on a cut with me called “Mudflap Mama” on my album from a few years ago called Unusual Suspects. I gave Slash one of my Leslie West signature guitars after that session.
The Bee: Nice to have a few guitars in your inventory to pass on to new friends.
West: Yeah, especially if they play them (laughing). Howard Stern has a couple of my guitars. Last summer he was trying to learn to play. I gave him a few lessons over e-mail. He always loved hard rock guitar. One of his favorite groups was The Yardbirds — “For Your Love” was one of his favorite songs. So when Music Aficionado gives me this writing gig, I guess they thought I would start with another guitar player. And a thousand people are trying to interview Howard, but when I told him what I was doing, and I said, “Hey, I’ll certainly understand if you say no,” he says to me, “How about Monday at 2:30.” It worked out really well, man.
The Bee: I can’t let a Woodstock veteran go without a war story. But I guess the 40th Anniversary Woodstock concert was much more special for you — you got married!
West: I got married in front of 20,000 guests (laughing). I asked the promoter right in the middle of our show — right before “Nantucket Sleighride.” It’s all on YouTube — “Leslie West Wedding.” All the guys held up my guitars and Jenni [Maurer] walked out in between them. Levon Helm was there, and a bunch of others. And I think everyone was kind of in shock when the justice of the peace from Monticello comes out. They weren’t expecting this. But damned if we didn’t get married.
For tickets to see Leslie West on March 18 at 8 pm ($45), call 203-438-5795, or visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org. The Ridgefield Playhouse is a nonprofit performing arts center located at 80 East Ridge, parallel to Main Street.
Check Out Leslie West jamming with Blackberry Smoke at The Beacon in November 2016.
Leslie West plays “People Get Ready” from his latest album, Soundcheck during a visit to Relix magazine.