If you don’t know of Leslie West, then shame on you. Even decades since his band Mountain shook Woodstock, his name still remains disturbingly unknown among the masses. On Unusual Suspects, his latest solo release, the pioneering titan of blues rock demonstrates that his name still deserves a spot among the greats; his impact on blues rock guitar (and hard rock, for that matter) can be heard in bands that range from Gov’t Mule to Motörhead to Muse.
The most exciting aspect of Unusual Suspects is the appearances made by A-listers of the guitar world. Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Slash (Guns N’ Roses), Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society), Joe Bonamassa, and session maestro Steve Lukather, best known for his role in Toto, are a crushing company that helps authenticate West’s status as a guitar legend. Despite their smoking presence, West towers above. It is also extremely noteworthy that Kenny Aronoff is by West every step of the way. With possibly the most impressive résumé of any working drummer, Aronoff continues to turn standard blues beats into flawless roaring beats that fit perfectly on Unusual Suspects.
When it comes to Unusual Suspects, there are no low points. If you drop the needle on any and every point of the album you are sure to witness heavy and fun displays of blues inspired rock. Of the tracks that brandish guest stars, there isn’t one that doesn’t demand an immediate listen.
“One More Drink for the Road” is driven by Steve Lukather’s ominous keys. The chugging rock tune is as heavy as anything else on the album without every truly exploding. “Mudflap Mama,” featuring Slash, boasts a nasty bottleneck riff that sounds as if it just rolled off the Harley-Davidson line. “Standing On A Higher Ground” is nothing but an ideal parade of Billy Gibbons and his blunt coolness. Co-written by Gibbons, the tune is 100% ZZ Top. Two of the most coveted and renowned tones in rock history team up together on this track. Gibbons’ swaggering and sly playing teams with West’s momentous crunch to create a locomotion of desirable sleaze. The wildest part of this track is undoubtedly the opening riff: an absolutely bizarre hybrid of Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” and a garage blues turnaround. It is beyond delightful.
“Third Degree,” a cover of blues piano legend Eddie Boyd’s tune (co-written by Willie Dixon), flaunts the mesmerizing playing and vocals of Joe Bonamassa (a noted favorite of BluesRockReview.com). By dragging a spooky, heavier than heavy riff across an honored Chicago groove, and cutting loose on intimidating duels, West and Bonamassa provide an answer to those who have ever wondered what it would have sounded like if Muddy Waters were 10 feet tall and on steroids.
“Nothin’s Changed” proves West’s prominent influence on modern playing. Zakk Wylde, the MVP of the metal scene, flashes his impeccably meaty chops. Wylde has always been vocal about his influences, but here you can downright hear it. West’s bottom-heavy tone is an evident predecessor of Wylde’s metal-savvy tone. As West and Wylde fire playful thunderbolts at each other, the true fun is hearing how much fun they are having. It sounds as if a lifelong master guitarist and his novice are finally able to out-duel each other with a wink and a nod. The last notable team effort is a cover of Willie Nelson’s “The Party’s Over.” This beer and whiskey guzzling tune features two of the best beer and whiskey guzzlers on the guitar scene: Slash and Zakk Wylde. Driven by down-home acoustic playing, cutting solos, and simple percussion/clapping, “The Party’s Over” proves that “heavy” isn’t loud; “heavy” is passion and attitude.
It is worth mentioning that West’s cover of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” may seem like an odd addition, but it is presented as a fast, hip-shaking, boogie. The intro calls to mind “Satch Boogie” by Joe Satriani. Much of the pop gloss of the original is stripped by West’s ability to beef up the main themes, thus transforming the track into a bouncy version of the Mountain classic “Mississippi Queen.”
Upon hearing of Unusual Suspects, I was thrilled. I knew the music would be great, and I knew that I would love hearing the collaborations between West and some of the greatest American-influenced rock players of the century, but I was most excited that West has yet another shot at becoming a widely respected name like “Clapton” or “Van Halen.” Still, with all of the respect and admiration of the guitar playing on this album, West never asks his guests to bow to him. They are there because West clearly respects them by trusting them to help his songs and by giving them their moment. The album comes full circle by the end as you realize that all of the talent, influence, mutual respect, and fun you just witnessed is the tangled behemoth that is Leslie West’s Unusual Suspects.
The Review: 9.5/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– The entire album. Buy it. Listen to it.
The Big Hit
– Standing On A Higher Ground (ft. Billy Gibbons)
Review by Jason Bank