“Well, it’s a mighty long way down rock ’n roll / from the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl / ’n you climb up the mountains ’n you fall down the holes / all the way from Memphis…” —All the Way from Memphis, written by Ian Hunter
Well, judging by the current blues revival that’s underway, with artists sampling every colour of the roots rainbow, maybe it’s not so far from Memphis after all. One of my pet peeves about the music scene of the early 21st century is the near-total abandonment of Rock amongst contemporary bands. I mean, in my opinion, did we really need ‘newgrass’ and ’80s synth-pop revivalists? Meanwhile Prog Rock— or as Steve Hackett prefers to call it, “progressive music”—has had something of a revivalist heyday over the past 20 years. But that’s another story…. (Check out my past posts on Prog.)
All of which brings me to Alastair Greene. How does one travel musically from being the guitarist for the revived Alan Parsons Project, touring the globe, to playing to festivals and clubs the amp-shredding blues-rock of the genre’s ’70s heyday? One part of the answer is obvious: great music seldom disappoints no matter how ‘old’ it gets. The other part of the answer is: artists must follow their own creative paths if they hope to remain vital. As Greene explains: “It was an honor to play the music created by the Alan Parsons Project to Alan’s fans around the world. After seven years, the time has come for me to truly pursue my own musical dream.”
And although the press kit for Greene’s fabulous new album Dream Train states that he has been “thrilling audiences for nearly two decades,” he was news to me—good news. Dream Train has welcome echoes of Cream, Johnny Winter, and ZZ Top yet remains consistently original throughout. The title track kicks off with a three-minute full tilt boogie laced with ripping electric guitar and a simple but effective metaphor for dreaming. Big Bad Wolf goes mid-tempo with a guitar riff slightly reminiscent of ZZ Top’s Tush. It took me awhile to figure out what the hell the title of the next track, Nome Zayne, was about until I realized it was a clever contraction of “Know what I’m sayin’,” a compact hit of social commentary. The song has a refreshing Marshall amp crunch to the guitar that I find sadly AWOL these days.
Greene has learned well the lessons of Rock’s golden age: guitar solos aren’t just about show-offy calisthenics but melody. (Think of the simple yet unforgettably melodic solos of Mick Ronson in David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars.) Another Lie is slow blues at its best, reminding me of the late great Alvin Lee in Ten Years After’s classic Slow Blues in C. Slow blues can actually be harder to do well than a piston-pumping sprint. It’s not about how many notes, how fast, but how much tone you can squeeze out of each one.
The instrumentals on the album—the acoustic romp of Song for Rufus and the funky R&B groove of Grateful Swagger—are anything but filler. In the first, Greene boldly strikes out into Jimmy Page acoustic territory, plucking a complex, softly melodic meditation that nicely balances the harder-edged tunes on the album. In Grateful Swagger, the honeyed tones of Greene’s Les Paul tastefully ripping up the fretboard are balanced by Jim Rankin’s funky bass lines and Austin Beede’s perfectly accented polyrhythms. A third instrumental, Iowa, keeps the overdrive pedal turned off for a clean guitar tone that could be a tribute to Les Paul himself, or even a slightly revved-up Chet Atkins.
But as I’ve said before, ever since the Stones hired master blues guitarist Mick Taylor, I’ve been a sucker for the unique timbre and sheer power of amplified slide guitar. There’s an electrified energy to it that nothing else quite matches. In the right hands it can send shivers up your spine, a Midnight Rambler that menaces even as it seduces. Greene is adept at this skill, and pens some superb originals in Rain Stomp and Down to Memphis. He’s a thoughtful lyricist too, avoiding the easy temptation to endlessly recycle blues clichés. Rain Stomp is a song for the Climate Change Era if ever I heard one, especially after the continent-sweeping wildfires of summer 2017. It’s great to hear artists updating the blues with contemporary issues. After all, the blues started as the music of covert social protest, of slaves using language with the skill and subtlety of the most educated poet to communicate the injustice of slavery. With all the hard-won freedom artists now have to speak, the least they can do is write songs that address what we all must cope with in the 21st century. And—just like their forebears—give us a good time while doing it!