Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Joe Walsh

Once upon a time long ago and far away in a land called Colorado, a 17-year kid met a girl and fell in love.  She turned that kid on to the Eagles, and by doing so turned him onto a guitarist named Joe Walsh.  He bought Hotel California , The Long Run and But Seriously Folks… and was very impressed by Joe Walsh’s playing.  Yeah, that kid was me.  The hilarity of the song Life’s Been Good [which he once dubbed “an industrial love song”] was refreshing.  It was strange, and I like strange things, so the attraction was instant.  I then got The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get and was floored by Rocky Mountain Way [still am…J].  Having heard this album I wondered “why is this guy in the Eagles?”  Between these four albums I found Joe Walsh’s playing to be impeccable.  Even if he was a bit of a lunatic, his playing was the hook for me.  The love affair with the girl died long ago, but the love affair with the playing of Joe Walsh continues to this day.

What are those things that have endeared me to Joe Walsh’s prowess as a guitar player:

The slide - Joe learned his slide technique from none other than Duane Allman.  Apparently Duane was a good teacher, and Joe was a good learner.  Duane showed him the open E tuning, and gave him one of his glass Coricidin bottles.  Joe's slide playing is flawless.  One needs to look no further than Rocky Mountain Way.  In the most recent issue of Guitar World magazine, he said Rocky Mountain Way was his “Hey, I play slide too!” song.  Indeed he does – he uses both glass and metal, depending on what sound he wants to get for a particular song.  To hear his slide playing [with a glass slide] on the acoustic guitar, look for The Confessor.  Warren Zevon's final work [The Wind] features some of Joe's nastiest playing on Rub Me Raw [where he uses a metal slide].

The talk box - Long before Peter Frampton made himself known with Do You Feel the Way We Do and Show Me the Way, Joe beat him to the punch on Rocky Mountain Way.  The talk box is a Joe Walsh trademark.   Joe revealed recently that it was he who showed Peter Frampton the way on the talk box.

Other effects – Joe Walsh has been a ham radio operator since 1961.  As such, he likes to tinker with electronics.  He’s been known to use a Maestro Echoplex tape-delay unit, Leslie rotating speaker cabinets, or beef-up amps switching to boost gain and treble.

Innate talent – all effects aside, Joe Walsh the guitar player can flat-out wail.  His peers hold him in very high regard:  Jimmy Page: “He has a tremendous feel for the instrument. I’ve loved his style since the early James Gang.” Eric Clapton: “He’s one of the best guitarists to surface in some time. I don’t listen to many records, but I listen to his.” Pete Townshend: “Joe Walsh is a fluid and intelligent player. There’re not many like that around.”

Joe Walsh’s recording career began with The James Gang.  They played in a power-trio format like Cream, Mountain and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.   He did three studio albums and one live album with them before venturing solo.  Joe wanted to do more than just power trio stuff.  Walk Away from Thirds is a great power trio song [Joe is credited with playing “trainwreck” at the end – an apt description].  It’s my favorite James Gang song.  But there were some songs format just wouldn’t work in the power trio format, like Tend My Garden or Ashes, the Rain and I.  The dominant instrument on Tend My Garden is the Hammond B3 organ.  Ashes, the Rain and I is an acoustic song with a string section accompaniment.  So after leaving the James Gang, Joe could indulge himself with stuff outside the power trio format.  He was a multi-instrumentalist who could play piano, Hammond B-3 organ, bass, pedal steel guitar, ARP synthesizer. 

Compared to his work with the James Gang, his first solo album Barnstorm is a fairly quiet affair. Acoustic guitars abound on Barnstorm.  The only raucous track would be the first version of Turn to Stone.  The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get wasn’t quite as quiet as Barnstorm, given that it has both Rocky Mountain Way and Meadows.  So What was a noisier album, but it had its quiet moments.  Joe could write a simple acoustic song like Help Me Thru the Night, or he could come up with a dreamy, ethereal thing like County Fair that has layers of electric guitars.  He produced Souvenirs for Dan Fogelberg in 1974.  This was around the same time he was making So What.  Souvenirs is a fairly pleasant and pretty safe record [emphasis on “pretty”], but Joe plays all over it.  Having heard it I thought it was foreshadowing of things to come in the Eagles.  Of note, amongst all the pretty songs is a very good guitar song called As the Raven Flies.  Carol is a Dan Fogelberg fan.  I heard As the Raven Flies on the radio one time and thought “Hey! Pretty cool song!  Who is it?"  Carol told me “that’s Dan Fogelberg, and by the way that’s Joe Walsh playing guitar.”  Dan Fogelberg’s cool factor went up a couple of notches when she told me that.

I’m very conflicted about Joe Walsh being in the Eagles.  He’s a guitarist I really like in a band that I liked at one time in my life but that I now no longer care for.  After his live You Can't Argue with a Sick Mind, Joe joined them in late 1975.  With his addition just in time for Hotel California, his hard edge made them sound almost lifelike.  His duel with Don Felder on the title track is a career highlight.  There’s some very tasty playing between those two going on there.  The riff from Life in the Fast Lane is his.  Bill Szymczyk produced the Eagles, but the guitars didn't bite like they did on his productions with the James Gang and Joe's solo work.  Perhaps Don Henley and Glenn Frey didn't want to be overshadowed by Joe Walsh and Don Felder [pure speculation on my part], and that's a pity if true.  On The Long Run, the highlights are Joe's.  The most exciting track was his In the City, a song he probably should have kept for himself.  His slide playing on Heartache Tonight is some of the best of his career.  Other than that, The Long Run was a snoozefest.  When the band reunited for Hell Freezes Over, the best sounding song of the bunch was his Help Me Thru the Night.  I think both Henley and Frey knew it too, so there's no wonder why the song was in the telecast but not on the CD.

After the Eagles split up I continued to follow Joe Walsh’s career.  He would put out an album every two years [There Goes the Neighborhood – 1981, You Bought It, You Name It – 1983, The Confessor – 1985].  The tracks that KILO-94 played on the radio [reflected in my list below] were all very good.  The playing was still outstanding, but I noticed he had an annoying habit of putting out albums that had some very good songs while the rest of the songs were “going through the motions” filler.  Little did I know that he was leading the rock-and-roll lifestyle that he depicted in Life’s Been Good to the hilt.  In hindsight, one could plot the quality of his musical output and see a downward trend.  By the time Got Any Gum came out in 1987, there were about three good songs on it. He did two tracks with Steve Winwood in 1986 [Freedom Overspill, Split Decision], one of which he wrote with Winwood.  I thought the pairing of those guys was a good match.  What a pity they didn’t pursue it any further than the record.  When Ordinary Average Guy came out in 1991, I was disappointed because the title demonstrated “truth in advertising.” The album was ordinary, as was the follow-up, Songs for a Dying Planet.

The Eagles reunion in 1994 came not a moment too soon for Joe Walsh.  His last solo album was 1992’s Songs for a Dying Planet, which sounded to me like “Songs for a Dying Career.”  I say that because that was around the time that Joe’s alcoholism brought him to a low point.  He hadn’t done a solo album since then, but later this year he will have his first in 20 years with the release of Analog Man.  Apparently Glenn Frey decreed that if anyone wanted to play in the Eagles again, they had to be sober.  Joe Walsh took that to heart and has been sober ever since.  Having heard him play on Hell Freezes Over, it appears Glenn Frey gave Joe the kick in the ass that he needed.  I hope Analog Man is the re-start of Joe’s solo career.

Joe Walsh factoids:
He attended Albert King’s funeral.  On the way to the funeral, he stopped in a Memphis guitar shop and rented a Gibson SG and an amp.  He used them to play Amazing Grace at Albert’s funeral.

He sold Jimmy Page the 1959 Gibson Les Paul that Jimmy used on every Led Zeppelin record after the first album.

He gave Pete Townshend a Gretsch 6120 guitar and a 3x10 Fender Bandmaster amp.  Pete used this combo to record Who’s Next.

He can play the mandolin, bagpipes, clarinet and the oboe in addition to the piano, Hammond B-3, acoustic and electric guitars, and the bass.

He played on sessions for BB King’s Indianola, Mississippi Seeds album as a rhythm guitarist.

Tony’s iPod Songs: 
Walk Away – Thirds [The James Gang]
Rocky Mountain Way, Wolf, Meadows – The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get
Help Me Thru the Night, Turn To Stone, County Fair – So What
Tend My Garden, The Bomber, Ashes, the Rain and I – James Gang Rides Again
Over and Over, Tomorrow, Inner Tube-Theme from Boat Weirdos, Life’s Been Good – But Seriously Folks…
Rivers [Of the Hidden Funk], A Life of Illusion – There Goes the Neighborhood
I Can Play That Rock & Roll, Told You So – You Bought It, You Name It
The Confessor, Rosewood Bitters, Good Man Down – The Confessor
The Radio Song, Got Any Gum-Up To Me – Got Any Gum
Split Decision – Back in the High Life [Steve Winwood]
As the Raven Flies – Souvenirs [Dan Fogelberg]