CD Review: Ignitor - Year of the Metal Tiger

CD Review: Ignitor - Year of the Metal Tiger
MVD Audio
All Access Review: B+
Ignitor - Year of the Metal Tiger 2012
None of the major media outlets in this country ever picked up the story, which is surprising considering the omniscience of the 24-hour news cycle. Apparently, though, CNN and Fox News don’t send war correspondents to hell to brave fire and brimstone in the pursuit of the truth as to what exactly happened when Ozzy Osbourne battled the devil for the soul of heavy metal and rock and roll. No, the only account of this epic duel is found on Ignitor’s thundering new seven-song record, Year of the Metal Tiger. As he did in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Satan, who seemingly never tires of testing musicians’ bravado, again gets his comeuppance, this time receiving a good thrashing in “Heavy Metal Holocaust,” the rugged bulldozer of an opening track to Year of the Metal Tiger, a fiery album of traditional, hot-wired metal that’s intensely passionate and utterly authentic. Spoiler alert: In subduing the beast, Ozzy is saved from certain doom by someone from his past. Any guesses as to who it is?
So, what to make of Ignitor, these Texans who declare themselves to be, “… warriors and fighters united in metal” in “We are IGNITOR,” the song that brings Year of the Metal Tiger to a smoldering conclusion. Formed by ex-Agony Column guitar shredder Stuart Laurence in 2003, Ignitor – now featuring JasonMcMaster, known best as lead singer for ‘80s metal court jesters Dangerous Toys, on lead vocals – Ignitor flies the “true metal” flag as high and as proud as can be, positioning themselves as battle-tested Spartans defending the faith of their forefathers, namely Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Accept and others of their ilk. But, are they serious? Are they perhaps going a little overboard in their zeal for metal? Or is Ignitor’s tongue firmly embedded in its cheek? It’s hard to know for sure, what with the whole bizarre Ozzy vs. Satan thing – although what a legend to be passed down through generations of metal fans. What is unassailably true about Ignitor is that its burning, rampaging riffs – almost thrash-like in nature – are powerful and weighty, and as for Laurence’s lyrics, delivered with such bravado and edginess by McMaster, they are tremendously entertaining.
Whoever “The Kaiser” is he makes Dos Equis’ “most interesting man in the world” look like a milquetoast accountant who’s never left the suburbs. And when McMaster, in no uncertain terms, states, “Give me a woman that loves the brew and I’ll conquer the world” – “So sayeth the Kaiser/the hammer of truth” – there is little doubt that "The Kaiser, this face-melting backdraft of incendiary guitars and serrated vocals, will do exactly that. Wonderfully intertwined dual guitars wrap themselves around the intro to “The Kaiser” before a battery of ripping guitar riffs pounds away at ruined ramparts of melodic majesty. Enter “Beast in Black,” riding cyclonic blast beats and turbo-charged guitars into the fray, while “Raiders from the Void” slams a battering ram of hard-hitting drums and meaty riffs into McMaster’s Udo-like caterwaul.
That’s Ignitor, always doing the unexpected. And they do it with speed, clutching hooks, dynamic tempo shifts, unrelenting heaviness and winning honesty. When McMaster’s ragged screech can’t quite hit those high notes, there’s no fixing the mistakes, and that makes them all the more dangerous and almost reckless. They gladly leave those errors in if it adds an element of unpredictability, so rare in today's manufactured rock and roll, to Year of the Metal Tiger and their work is better for it.

-            Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Fastway - Eat Dog Eat

CD Review: Fastway - Eat Dog Eat
MVD Audio
All Access Review: B+
Fastway - Eat Dog Eat 2012
Comprised of rock and roll gypsies eager to reinvent themselves, the Fastway that churned out the blazing fireball of blues-stoked heavy metal that was their self-titled 1983 debut was very different from the confused jumble of imitators and Johnny-come-latelys that hung around at the end to watch it all come crumbling down. What had been a bona fide supergroup that combined the DNA of Motorhead, UFO and Humble Pie was, by the late ‘80s, a shell of its former self. And so was “Fast” Eddie Clarke, once a fret-scorching dynamo with Motorhead.
Gone was Jerry Shirley, former drum basher for Humble Pie and Fastway’s indefatigable combustion engine. Gone back home to Ireland was singer Dave King and that screaming alley-cat wail of his. And Pete Way … well, ol’ Pete, a man without a country following his departure from UFO, never even made it on that first record, having been shanghaied for Ozzy Osbourne’s band before Fastway ever stepped foot in the studio – this despite starting Fastway with Clarke in 1982.
That left Clarke as the sole surviving original member, and he was having a bad time of it in rehab by the end of the ’80s. In a palace coup of sorts, Clarke was usurped as Fastway’s leader, and without him in the driver’s seat, the fractured unit produced the disappointingly synthetic On Target and Bad Bad Girls. Released in 1988 and 1990, respectively, they were as schlocky and bloodless as the worst ‘80s metal had to offer. Not that Clarke had much to do with any of it. He was focused on overcoming his addictions, leaving “Fast” Eddie little opportunity to join Fastway in the studio on either one of those records, and his absence was felt. All those synthesizers and computer drums – that was clearly not the “Fast” Eddie way
Influenced heavily by the British blues boom of the 1960s, Clarke’s blazing leads and tough, working-class riffs – on display during Motorhead’s most exciting era and found in the kinetic energy of Fastway’s early days – are born of a taste for simple, uncomplicated music that aims straight for the gut and seeps into the soul. Perhaps that’s why he walked away from Fastway in the early ‘90s, covering the old girl with a tarp and letting rust have at its compromised legacy. He could no longer stand by and watch Fastway devolve into a glossy, fabricated mess.
No one could have predicted Fastway’s glorious 2012 return – not Nostradamus and certainly not the Mayans. For two decades, Fastway remained dormant, but Clarke, possibly troubled by how he’d left things, has restored the abandoned vehicle, and the good news is it is absolutely road worthy. Titled Eat Dog Eat, the latest effort from Fastway is, in many ways, a throwback to a bygone age, one that prized the holy trinity of guitars, drums and bass and couldn’t get enough of good, honest songwriting – elements always in abundance in Clarke’s work, here strengthened by some of the most rigorous grooves and ballsy riffage of his career, not to mention his searing solos. From the stomping funk of “Freedom Song” to the nasty, swinging riffs of the hot-wired “Leave the Light On” – the track most reminiscent of Fastway’s earliest efforts – Eat Dog Eat is made of strong stuff, as evidenced by the relentless march of muscular, driving guitars that plow their way through the simmering tension of “Deliver Me.” In similar fashion, though the mood is much darker and the expansive choruses grow and fan out like plumes of black smoke signaling a fire in the distance, “Fade Out” grinds out a rugged, rough-and-tumble existence. Underneath Jepson’s impassioned, powerhouse vocals and flashing, occasionally sparkling guitars, a raging undercurrent of bass lines rumble as if an earthquake is imminent – the same signs of which are evident in the slow-burning “Who Do You Believe?” and those wah-wah effects of Clarke’s that light up the trac
And while “Dead and Gone” is surely no seismic event, it is a surprising anomaly for Fastway and “Fast” Eddie, whose aversion to anything acoustic is well-documented. While the thoughtful lyrics meditate on mortality, the loss of faith and the recovery of belief, “Dead and Gone” opens with a stark, melancholy cycle of acoustic-guitar picking from Jepson before he deftly brushes and strums the golden hair of those strings ever so gently. But, in the end, Clarke just can’t help himself, and when the words turn hopeful and downright uplifting and Jepson’s voice grows increasingly defiant, Clarke provides support in the way of rocky, sharply struck electric chords.
Never one to reinvent the wheel, Clarke is happiest when song structures have good bones – basic elements like undeniable hooks and gripping melodies, such as those found in the hard-charging “Sick as a Dog,” a galloping horse of a track that refuses to spit the bit. By the time “On and On” shuffles ponderously onto Eat Dog Eat’s well-worn stage, however, it’s hard not to be slightly numbed by the sameness of much of the record, or more specifically, the trudging tempos that become a little too routine and predictable while taking their own sweet time to bloom into bigger, more dramatic endings. Thankfully, the closer “Only If You Want It” offers more in the way of soulful, acrobatic dynamics and righteous energy.
On the whole, Eat Dog Eat redeems Fastway. The imagery of a mangy cur on the cover is not only appropriate, but it is emblematic of Fastway itself. Fastway is the malnourished underdog prowling the city streets in search of food, and though it’s been beaten occasionally,the animal is too tough to die and too optimistic to give up the fight. That hunger and desperation, not to mention the desire to restore Fastway’s good name, pushes Dog Eat Dog toward greatness.

-            Peter Lindblad

DVD Review: Santana - Greatest Hits: Live at Montreux 2011

DVD Review: Santana - Greatest Hits: Live at Montreux 2011
Eagle Rock
All Access Review: A-

From birth, the worldly Santana has been a band without borders, trying every musical style under the sun at least once in an attempt to concoct exotic genre blends that could appeal to a wide range of tastes. Woodstock organizers undoubtedly found common ground with Santana, both sharing an almost reckless sense of adventure and displaying little fear of the unknown. They must have thought highly of the San Francisco ensemble’s earthy, Latin-flavored fusion of jazz, rap, African music, blues and rock, because they decided to take a flyer on this unproven commodity and invited them to perform at an event they must have known, deep down, would make history.
It was just another in a series of risky steps that somehow worked out in the end for the rag-tag revolutionaries who, despite their “wing and a prayer” planning, managed to pull it off, as Woodstock, a festival that seemed on the verge of a major catastrophe every single day, maintained an admirable certain sense of civility and order. Even many of the initially suspicious townspeople came to respect the marauding invaders that just wanted to peacefully assemble, get high and listen to some of the most exciting music of the day. Certainly, Santana did its part to soothe the savages, this horde of hippies occupying a small town in upstate New York that just wanted to be left alone. It was the coming-out party to end all coming-out parties, as the scintillating Santana mesmerized the masses with a frenzied, euphoric performance that spoke multiple musical languages fluently.
Where Woodstock was a one-off event of extraordinary social significance, the long-running Montreux Jazz Festival has always been just about the music, and Santana has been a fixture at the event for years. It’s been the scene of some of their greatest concert triumphs, one of those being a vibrant, life-affirming 2011 spectacle of dazzling musicianship – not to mention showmanship – that was a colorful feast for the eyes, the ears and the soul. And the new two-disc, 204-minute DVD from Eagle Eye Media that captures the thrilling night on video is an all-you-can-eat buffet of Santana’s greatest hits and a few unexpected surprise
Take the joyous hip-hop version of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” that Santana segues into on Disc One after the melodious improvisation and red-hot firecracker beats of “Spark of the Divine” and the glorious Zappa-esque cacophony of horns, organ and crazed guitar squalls – conducted by a bemused Carlos – in “SOCC” dies down. The manic, incredibly busy instrumentation, always seemingly one step away from going completely off the rails, provides a graffiti-splattered backdrop for Santana’s searing guitar leads and sets the tone for a magical evening, one that sees Santana’s 11-member band cook up a wondrous mix of twilight moods and smoky atmospheres in “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” that drift lazily into a spellbinding version of “Black Magic Woman.” Dancing his way into the summery “Oye Como Va,” Carlos, clearly enjoying himself, rips off one of the many effortless, mind-blowing guitar solos of his that seem to speak directly to God. Watching close-ups of his fluid, expressive playing here is an absolute pleasure. From there, the band’s reworking of Santana’s more recent hit “Maria Maria” – introduced by Carlos’s gorgeous Spanish guitar picking – is both achingly beautiful and an exuberant celebration of Hispanic pride and culture, while “Foo Foo” and “Corazon Espinado/Guajira,” which features wife Cindy Blackman Santana’s powerful, dynamic drumming, are sun-splashed block parties of hip-swaying Latino dance music.
And we’re not even on Disc Two yet, where Santana’s band navigates the tricky instrumental currents of “Evil Ways,” “A Love Supreme” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” in succession with wild abandon and passionate precision. Welcoming Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks to the stage, Santana and company give a tender, heartfelt reading to the bluesy “Make Somebody Happy” before launching into a full-on, righteous jam on “Right On Be Free” that gives all three guitars extensive room to solo brilliantly. Moving on, Santana slides into “Smooth,” and the crowd-pleasing Sangria of flowery pop hooks and sultry melodies leaves you thirsting for more.
The sound is spectacular, and the visuals, while not groundbreaking, are certainly vivid and professionally shot with an interesting variety of camera angles. But, it’s the personality, open-mindedness and skill of Carlos along with the unity and free-flowing instrumental voodoo of his band that wins the day. An inspiring interview with Carlos and a warmly engaging talk with Cindy are paired with enjoyable behind-the-scenes footage to give an intimate glimpse into the jet-setting world of Santana, while extensive liner notes tell of Santana’s historical and present genius fill out a package that is absorbing and intoxicating.

-            Peter Lindblad

Far Beyond ... Sabbath?

How a Pantera member almost joined Heaven & Hell
By Peter Lindblad
Vinny Appice of Kill Devil Hill
Since joining forces on Black Sabbath’s revitalizing “Dehumanizer” tour back in the early 1990s, the Sabbath family – as dysfunctional as it is at the moment – and members of Pantera have maintained a fairly cozy relationship.
Glad to stay out of the current mess involving plans for the reunification of the original Black Sabbath lineup, Vinny Appice, drummer for Sabbath during the Dio era, has other irons in the fire, one of which involves former Pantera bassist Rex Brown. On May 22, Appice’s Kill Devil Hill, which also features Brown, singer Dewey Bragg and guitarist Mark Zavon, releases its self-titled debut album on SPV/Steamhammer, a grim, crushingly heavy amalgamation of black-hooded, Sabbath-style doom metal, head-swimming melodies on loan from Alice in Chains, killer hooks and sinister riffs.
Before all this, however, Appice and another member of Pantera came close to working together. And when one thinks of what might have been … well, it’s nothing short of mind-blowing. Or, at least, it was.
Flash back to the spring of 2010, when the world of heavy metal was rocked by the news of Ronnie James Dio’s death. At the time of his sad demise, Dio was still part of Heaven & Hell, the name the Dio-fronted Sabbath lineup assumed when they reunited in 2006. Over the span of four years, Heaven & Hell toured, recorded three songs for the 2006 compilation LP, Black Sabbath: The Dio Years, and put out the devastating comeback record The Devil You Know in 2009 that critics raved about.
Of course, when Dio died, everybody figured Heaven & Hell was done. And for all intents and purposes, it was. Or was it?
Thinking back, Appice, in a recent interview, recalled how Down – the post-Pantera band that included Brown and Phil Anselmo, opened for Heaven & Hell.
“We played a lot of dates together, and we went down to Australia, and it was cool,” said Appice. “It was cool hanging out. It was a good tour, great tour and successful, so it was cool hanging out with friends and being out on tour for that long. There was even talk of, at one time, after Ronnie passed away, that if we were going to continue, what singers could we use? Phil’s name popped up as a possibility to make another record, but that never happened.”
Wait … what? Phil Anselmo in Black Sabbath? Good God, just think of the possibilities.
It’s easy to understand why the thought appealed to Sabbath. During the “Dehumanizer” tour, Appice and everyone else in Sabbath watched in awe as the EF-5 groove-metal tornado known as Pantera left a path of destruction every where they went.
“They were just bad-ass, man – a powerful, strong band,” said Appice. “So much energy … they just slammed it to the wall. So I enjoyed them and I watched them, too, before we went on those shows; when we arrived on time, I was watching Pantera. So, they were awesome, man … absolutely. Slamming it to the wall.”
Anselmo never did join Heaven & Hell, and perhaps it’s all for the best. Now, Appice and Brown are together in Kill Devil Hill, and everybody’s happy. And if an updated version of Dehumanizer – albeit one whose graveyard atmosphere is thick with gothic imagery – sounds appealing, then Kill Devil Hill is right up your alley.
“Like the guitars … very heavy and very heavy riffs, and the drum sounds a little bigger on Dehumanizer,” said Appice. “There are some similarities to it. And I think there are some similarities with the old style Sabbath, the early Sabbath. And then there’s a little bit of Dio in there, too. Dewey is a very melodic singer, very heavy and dark. But then he hits on those melodies. Some of them remind me of what Ronnie had done. So it was kind of a combination of those things, and some of it’s like Alice in Chains. It reminds me a lot of Alice in Chains and Pantera. There are a lot of little ingredients in there, you know. And it wasn’t like we sat there and said, ‘Let’s do this so that it sounds like this.’ It just happened that way with all the bands and the combination of them.”
Look for the full interview with Appice to be posted in the coming days. Visit for news and touring information on Kill Devil Hill.

CD Review: Prong - Carved into Stone

CD Review: Prong - Carved into Stone
Long Branch Records
All Access Review: A-
Prong - Carved into Stone 2012
Mavericks in a thrash-metal scene that placed more of a premium on playing with wild abandon and blistering speed than rigid precision, Prong and its brutally intense major-label classic Cleansing, from 1994, was only slightly looser and a tad less militaristic than Helmet’s rugged Meantime. Pummeling industrial minimalism that seemed to march to the orders of an unseen drill sergeant set Prong apart from the herd it had taken a cattle prod to in hard-hitting pieces like “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck” and “Whose Fist Is This Anyway?” In the years since, Prong, on occasion, has grown even more taut and single-minded, sometimes mistakenly neglecting the barely harnessed power of its formidable low end. Released from Al Jourgensen’s 13th Planet label – Prong mastermind Tommy Victor also played with Ministry in the early 2000s – and winding up on SPV’s new Long Branch Records imprint, the crossover terrorists have significantly fattened a wiry sonic frame that had grown too lean.
In doing so, they have created a monster, the seething sonic psychopath Carved into Stone. Still painting bleak, disturbing visions of urban decay and street-level violence with technically brilliant musicianship, the harsh realities of Prong’s more recent diatribes are delivered with raging guitars, barking vocals and the double-kick drum blunt-force trauma of Alexei Rodriguez. Roaring out of the gate, the speed-metal blitz of opener “Eternal Heat” leaves one breathless, just as the visceral acts of sonic aggression that follow – namely, “Keep on Living in Pain” and “Ammunition” – somehow maintain the impossible breakneck pace previously set. Thicker and heavier, “Path of Least Resistance” and the surging title track, with its punching-bag rhythms and the kind of widescreen, black-hole choruses the Deftones get lost in, are mazes of dynamic riffage, while “Revenge … Best Served Cold” and “State of Rebellion” subversively chisel biting melodies into their uncompromising marriage of industrial and metal sadomasochism. An awesome sculpture of sound and fury, Carved into Stone is guilty of an aural assault so devastating that it really ought to be locked up.

-            Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Kill Devil Hill

CD Review: Kill Devil Hill - Kill Devil Hill
Steamhammer / SPV
All Access Review: B+

Kill Devil Hill

Ever wonder what a confluence of Pantera’s groove-mongering madness and Dio/Black Sabbath melodic black magic would sound like? Welcome to the gothic darkness of Kill Devil Hill, brainchild of veteran metal warriors Rex Brown, carpet-bombing bassist for the former, and Vinny Appice, bludgeoning drummer for the latter two outfits. Intense, ominous and unrelentingly heavy, Kill Devil Hill – also featuring vocalist Dewey Bragg and guitarist Mark Zavon – could be the bastard child of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, were it not for the obvious doom-metal parentage of early Ozzy-fronted Sabbath. How proud they must be of their demon offspring.

Tuning up with the violent opener “War Machine,” Kill Devil Hill unleashes a dense swarm of malevolence that almost swallows the hornets’ nest of activity kicked up in the murderous “Voodoo Doll,” where the foursome play puppet master with shifting dynamics. The woozy, drug-sick “Gates of Hell” and “Up in Flames” revisit the twisted psychedelic carnival of “Black Hole Sun” while Bragg’s ocean-deep, anguished phrasing summons the hoary, hopelessly addicted ghost of Layne Staley. And with grooves as thick as molasses and monstrously huge guitar riffs, “Rise from the Shadows” comes off as the prodigal son of “Iron Man,” while the serpentine “Hangman” slithers through a jungle of tribal beats before confronting the gallows with supernova vocals and menacing guitars. As black as night, Kill Devil Hill has all the personality of a gargoyle come to life, and its appearance on the metal scene just might herald a new era of evil.

- Peter Lindblad

The Comeback Kid: ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke seeks redemption

Legendary guitarist revisits the glory days of Fastway
By Peter Lindblad

The Comeback Kid: Eddie Clark

Just as “Fast” Eddie Clarke was getting back on his feet in 1982 and putting the ugliness of his shocking departure from Motorhead behind him, fate pulled the rug out from under the guitar great.  For months, Clarke and Pete Way, who had then recently walked away from UFO, had been plotting their next move and in doing so, they recruited a talented crew of rock and roll mercenaries for a potential supergroup that aimed to shake up the balance of power in heavy metal.

Former Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley was already in the fold when they discovered a singer from Ireland with the screeching, switchblade-wielding voice of an angry god in Dave King, who would later go on to front the Emerald Isle-meets-America punks Flogging Molly. The rehearsals had been scintillating. Every piece of the puzzle was in place. Then, just as quickly as it had all come together, something happened that drove the project dubbed Fastway off the rails.

“I’ll tell you what, man. It was fantastic,” recalls Clarke, talking about those early Fastway sessions. “Of course, we put so much into it, and it was fantastic, and then Pete fucking disappeared! We go to fucking rehearsals, and I’d say, ‘Where’s Pete?’ ‘Well, we don’t know.’ So, I went around the office and I said, ‘Where’s Pete?’ And they said, ‘We heard he’s going with Ozzy Osbourne.’ I said, ‘What?’ Apparently, Sharon [Osbourne] had offered him a job with Ozzy, ‘cause they were doing three [shows at Wembley Stadium] here in London. And they didn’t have a bass player, or their bass player couldn’t make it or something. So they asked Pete to do it, and Pete agreed. I didn’t see him again for seven years.”

As is often the case in such matters, the original Fastway was undone by record company entanglements, as Clarke would find out. Years later, the two would reconcile and rehash what had happened. “I was coming out of my flat in London and who was walking along the street with his girlfriend? Pete,” recounts Clarke. “I said, ‘Pete. It’s you.’ And we had a cup of tea and a chat and all that. And I mean he’s such a lovely bloke.”

As Clarke tells it, he invited Way’s label, Chrysalis, to the studio to review the demos they’d made. Only Chrysalis never showed. “I mean, it had been three days, and I said, ‘Well, what’s the problem here?’ recounted Clarke. “I said, ‘Well, okay. Come to a showcase at the rehearsal room.’ They didn’t show up. But CBS did show up, and my business guy – because we’d gotten a manager by then, an accountant who was helping me out – he said, they’ve got Billy Squier’s management and Gary Moore, and he said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Well, look. Let’s play it this way: The first one with a check on the table, we’ll take it.’”

Ready to make a deal, Clarke remembers, “I didn’t even care what the amount was. I said, ‘The first one who puts their money where their mouth is, they can have the band.’ I thought that was fair, you know. Well, CBS bikes over a check and within two hours, there’s a check on the table. It’s just a down payment, but of course, Chrysalis got to raving and said we’re not going to let Pete go.”

Try as he might to smooth things over, Clarke couldn’t get Chrysalis to cut Way loose. “I said, ‘How come you’re not going to let this go? I’ve given you every opportunity to sign the band,’” said Clarke. “They said, ‘No, no, no. We’re not going to let Pete go.’ I went up to their offices and said you’ve got to sort this out. But it really upset Pete.” And Clarke believes that is ultimately why he took the Ozzy offer, “ … and that was that – which was a tragedy.”

Although Fastway went on to record one of the most underrated debut albums in metal history, 1983’s hard-charging, bluesy haymaker Fastway, and produced six more LPs of varying quality, including 1984’s All Fired Up, 1986’s Waiting For The Roar and The World Waits For You, 1987’s Trick Or Treat soundtrack, 1988’s On Target and 1990’s Bad Bad Girls, the band’s star-crossed first chapter came to an ignominious conclusion as the ‘90s ushered in the era of grunge. As for Clarke, he often wonders what might have been had Way stayed on.

“I never really got over Pete leaving, ‘cause you know, it was our thing,” said Clarke. “And so Pete leaving was … I never really recovered to be honest. I never recovered.”

Redemption Songs

In April, Clarke and a revamped Fastway, including vocalist/bassist Toby Jepson, released Eat Dog Eat, a tasty, satisfying dish of meat-and-potatoes, no frills hard rock that’s a welcome return to form for a band that’s been away far too long. Harkening back to the street-tough blues rock, razor-sharp guitars and thumping rhythms of Fastway’s eponymous debut album, Eat Dog Eat emphasizes a back-to-basics approach that targets and hits the erogenous zones of anyone who fancies old-school, early ‘70s metal dressed up in frayed denim and leather. 

For Clarke, recording Eat Dog Eat was a chance to right two wrongs – namely 1988’s On Target and 1990’s Bad, Bad Girls, the two records that sullied Fastway’s reputation and discouraged Clarke so thoroughly that he avoided stepping foot in a formal recording studio for two decades.

About recording Eat Dog Eat, Clarke said, “We went to a studio I used in the late ‘80s. There were a couple of dodgy Fastway records at the end there, On Target and Bad, Bad Girls, which actually didn’t have much to do with me, but they were done at this studio in Lincolnshire – it’s an old chapel. So I revisited that, and I’d forgotten how great it was to set up in the chapel live. And we just started jamming, and I’d just forgotten what a blast it was to be in the studio, to be backed by big monitors and all that. For me, it was the memory of how great recording can be and listening back to it and saying, ‘This is great, man’ and playing a solo and thinking, ‘Wow, wow. I’ve done it. I love it. That’ll do it.’ I enjoyed every minute of it, and I can only say, it was the best money I’ve ever spent in my life.”

Feeling vindicated by the lean, mean sonic quality and hard-hitting nature of Eat Dog Eat, Clarke had long been troubled by how he’d left things with Fastway all those years ago. “Well, in the ‘90s, or really the end of the ‘80s, I was messed up, you know,” said Clarke. “The last two, the On Target and Bad, Bad Girls albums, I wasn’t on ‘em really. I did a little bit of help with them, but that was it, because I was in a bit of a state. And the guy [Lea Hart, who replaced original Fastway vocalist Dave King] that took over by then – ‘cause I’d lost track of it before and I lost track of it again – he kind of took over and sort of just angled it the way he wanted it to go, with keyboards and all that. Of course, for the second album, Bad Bad Girls, I was actually in the hospital most of the time, in rehab ‘cause I was really ill. I got really ill. I was close to death, and I was really tanking it with the old booze. So I was in rehab for five weeks, and they let me out for one weekend to go up and have a listen to what was going on. But you know, I got back to the old hospital and the album was kind of done without me. And so, when I hit the ‘90s, I stopped drinking and I had to stop drinking because I was in such a mess, and that takes a little bit of a while to get over.”

In recovery, after doing a solo album in 1993 – which featured Lemmy singing on one of the tracks – that fizzled thanks to the rise of Brit-pop in the U.K., Clarke retreated from the public eye, buying a little house in the west of England where he “… just hung out there, just played a bit and just did a little bit of recording at home … and generally just wasted my time.” A call from Lemmy drew him out.

“What happened was, Lemmy called me in about 1999 and we were talking,” said Clarke. “And he invited me down to the 25th anniversary of Motorhead and he said, ‘Well look, why don’t you come down?’ And I said, ‘Okay, I will.’ He said, ‘Come to the sound check. We’ll work out what we’re going to do and all that.’ I was really chuffed that Lemmy phoned me, so I went down there and I did that, and it kind of started me back up a bit.”

Ready to get back in the saddle, Clarke set about restoring his legacy. The way he went about it speaks to the man’s preference for that which is simple and uncomplicated. “So the next few years – I've got a little studio built down here – I started to try to get new equipment in,” said Clarke. “And then about 2005, I’m starting to write a bit of material, I’m working on new stuff. Then the record company asked me if I’d put an anthology together, so I put an anthology together in 2006. And then 2007 came along, and there was the offer of doing some Fastway shows. I mean, I kind of got Lemmy to thank for that because he got me back into believing in myself.”

Still, Clarke wondered if anybody still cared about him or Fastway. Was anybody clamoring for their return? As it turned out, the answer was a resounding “yes.” “If you’re gone too long away, you tend to think that everybody’s forgotten about you and nobody gives a sh*t,” said Clarke. “But when I got down with Motorhead in Brixton, the crowd went absolutely ape-sh*t. They really did, and I was really chuffed. And I thought, ‘Well, hang on, maybe I should be doing some more here’ … and that made me realize that there were people out there who didn’t want me to drop dead just yet.”

Turning the Ignition

Back in 1982, however, Clarke’s career, though, was on life support when he split from Motorhead. Upon returning to the U.K. after the divorce, the realization of just how dire his situation was hit Clarke full force.
“It was, “Oh, f**k. What am I going to do now?’” said Clarke. “I was heartbroken to be honest. We had a bit of a set-to, but I never ever imagined that I wouldn’t be in Motorhead. I thought we were there for life. And it’s funny how circumstances … they rally against you. Suddenly, you’ve got all these things going on that dictate the way things are going, and you just couldn’t even imagine that it would go that way. It wasn’t even on the menu, me leaving the band. But, one row and then another and they didn’t want me in the band anymore, and when I said, ‘Look, let’s carry on.’ They told me to f**k off. You know, ‘We don’t want you anymore,’ and I came back to England on the next plane over. And I remember tottering down the streets with half a bottle of vodka in me pocket, thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

Complicating matters was the fact that Clarke and the rest of Motorhead lived in the same house in England. So, he had to move out. With no place to live and none of his equipment, which was still with the band in America, Clarke felt a bit lost. He also had no money to speak of. “I’ve got no money, because we never got any money in those days,” said Clarke. “We never really got paid, you know. A couple hundred well, you know, $250 a week, but … well, you don’t really need a lot when you’re on the road and everything’s paid for. You don’t kick up a stink. So I was poor, and they were very difficult times. And of course, we were huge here. We were Motorhead. So, it was a bit weird really. We had #1 albums and songs out … no money of course, because managers don’t like giving you money (laughs). They keep you under the yolk, you know.”

There was someone who understood all too well what was happening to Clarke. It was Way, who was undergoing a separation from his band, UFO. Somebody decided to play matchmaker. “I got a call from somebody at the Motorhead office in London, somebody who obviously felt a bit sorry for me or whatever,” said Clarke. “And it came out of the blue, and I said, ‘What’s this? I didn’t expect to hear from you.’ They said, ‘We just thought we’d let you know that Pete Way has left UFO and would you like to get together with him?’ And I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got nothing going on here.’ I said, ‘Yeah, cool.’”

Previously, the only contact Clarke and Way had ever had was in the pubs. “I mean, I knew Pete a little bit, but only from being drunk together in the Marquee [the venerable London concert venue],” said Clarke. “We’d never had much to say, but … ‘Hey, do you wanna have a drink?’ ‘Fantastic.’ (laughs) So, I didn’t really know Pete. I knew he was a nice guy, but that was all. But we got together, and we hit it off right away because we both liked to drink. I had a drinking problem. He had a drinking problem. We had our drinking problems together, and it was a lot of fun. I think we were both relieved that we found someone who was in the same position.”

With Clarke on guitar and Way on bass, the budding partnership began laying the foundation for what would become Fastway by finding a rehearsal space … and a new friend. “That’s when we met Topper,” said Clarke, referring to Topper Headon, drummer for punk heroes The Clash.

By way of explanation, Clarke related how he and Way went to find the guy who ran the place where Motorhead once jammed. “Motorhead used to rehearse at this lovely place, a big old house in Notting Hill. We said, ‘Why don’t we go there and see if we can strike a deal with the guy?’ So we went around there to see the guy and said, ‘Can you sign us up for a few rehearsals? I can’t pay you immediately, but I can when things pick up.’ He said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ And who was there? Topper Headon from The Clash, the drummer! And we all got chatting and we had a laugh, and he said, ‘My drums are here. Why don’t we have a rehearsal?’ So, the next day, we all picked up and borrowed a couple of amps that were out the back there, plugged in and off we went. But we had a couple of weeks, and playing with Topper, it was brilliant. It really was fun. We’d all laugh and get pissed and then go back and make some noise.”
Though word was getting around that a new supergroup was taking shape, Headon did not sign up for Fastway. He had other obligations. “So, then, of course, Topper did have a few problems with The Clash, and he had a few problems anyway, one thing and another,” said Clarke. “So, he said, ‘Look guys, I’d love to do it, but I can’t really. I’m just not well enough really.’”

No matter, Way and Clarke weren’t through taking applications. “By this time, we were doing a few interviews in newspapers and people had gotten wind of it, that this could be the first heavy metal supergroup, with members from UFO and Motorhead,” remembered Clarke. “And that’s when we sort of decided to advertise; in these interviews, we’d advertise we were looking for drummers. So we used to get all these tapes every day. We’d have about 50 tapes coming in every day … well, maybe not 50, maybe 20 or 30 in like a carrier bag, you know. Every day these tapes would fly in and Pete and I would listen to them, and all that.”

Serendipity would strike again with news of a certain drummer’s unexpected availability. “Then, a friend of Pete’s said, ‘You know, Jerry Shirley’s in town’ – Jerry, from Humble Pie,” said Clarke, who still sings Shirley’s praises, saying he’s right up there with Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and that “ … he used to hit [his drums] like canons.”

Continuing with the story, Clarke added, “And I said, ‘If we could get Jerry Shirley, wouldn’t that just be the biscuit.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll get you the number.’ So we got his number and we made a phone call, and he was about 25 miles out west this way. And we heard he was painting and decorating. So we made the meet with him, and we went down to see him after work. And he comes in the pub all covered in paint, you know. He said, ‘Hi guys. Why don’t I buy you a drink?’ And we said, ‘Sure.’ (laughs) We sat down and started drinking. We got chatting and he said, ‘Well, guys, my drums are in hock at the moment.’ I said, ‘No problem, we’ll get them out. Do you fancy the idea?’ He says, ‘I love it.’ So we sorted his drums out.”
Astounded at their luck, Way and Clarke went back to sorting through the tapes to find a singer. Way found two diamonds in the rough.

“Pete comes round my door one morning. He’s got a beer in his hand. It is 11 o’clock in the morning and a beer in his hand, you know,” said Clarke. “He said, ‘I’ve got two singers who are fantastic, two Robert Plants.’ And I said, ‘Oh.’ So we go down and we put the tapes on, and one of ‘em did ‘Communication Breakdown’ and it was out of this world. But he was in Australia, this guy. So that’s how big this got. People were sending us tapes from all over the world, wanting to be in the band. And then he played Dave [King]. And I said, ‘Oh, I like this guy,’ ‘cause he didn’t sound so Robert Plant-y. And you could just tell. I said, ‘Man, this is the guy.’ And Pete said, ‘Yeah, he’s good, isn’t he?’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s call him.’”
And call him they did, even going so far as to propose sending him a plane ticket to fetch him from his home in Ireland. “So we called him and said, ‘Look, can you come over,’” said Clarke. “So we sorted it out and said, ‘Look, Davey, we’ll get a plane ticket to you and you can come over.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’ll pay for my own ticket,’ and all that. He was real independent. He was only about 20. And the rest is history. We picked him up from the airport, took him to the rehearsal room and said, ‘Well, here are a couple of the ideas we got.’ And he’s singing ‘em straight away. And it was like, ‘Oh, this is brilliant.’ I mean, Jerry, he was an old soldier, and he said, ‘Man, this is really going somewhere now.’ And it really was. It was like a light came … we saw the light.”

A New Way

Ah, but that light dimmed considerably with Way’s confounding exit. Still, Fastway soldiered on, tabbing Charlie McCracken, formerly of Taste, as Way’s permanent replacement on bass, although they used session player Mick Feat during the recording of Fastway.

On the strength of the snaky, biting single “Say What You Will,” Fastway won over critics and fans with its tough, no-nonsense attitude and ballsy rock ‘n roll songs that sounded like back-alley knife fights, such as the menacing “Heft!” and the thrilling, nitro-burning opener “Easy Livin’” that brackets Fastway with the seductive, Zeppelin-like closer “Far Far from Home,” a separate promotional single attached to the first vinyl issue of the LP. These days, Clarke is feeling a bit of déjà vu when it comes to “Say What You Will,” a song that coalesced in much the same way as Eat Dog Eat’s “Leave the Light On.”

A swaggering bit of raucous, riff-heavy hard rock that packs a punch and delves deeply into spiritual matters, “Leave the Light on” [for more on the songs from Eat Dog Eat, please read “’Fast’ Eddie Clarke talks Fastway’s new record, Eat Dog Eat”] was largely unfinished, but the record company wanted 11 tracks, not 10 for Eat Dog Eat. “Funny thing is, the first Fastway album, if we’d had 11 songs, the one we would have left off would have been … ‘Say What You Will.’ Yeah, can you believe that?” exclaimed Clarke.

Hard to believe, though true, the story of how “Say What You Will” almost didn’t make Fastway is not so unusual in rock history.  “Jerry and I, in those days, we didn’t like really like ‘Say What You Will,’” said Clarke. “We had nine tunes, and we had to write one more. And it was like, ‘Oh, bloody hell.’ We just didn’t have too many ideas in our heads, so we said, ‘Why don’t do this.’ Jerry had a bit of a riff and I got a hold of that, and I said, ‘We can’t use that. It’s moving around a bit.’ So we sort of transformed the riff, and then it was like, ‘Okay Dave, well look, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll start playing here and you start singing.’ (laughs) And then Jerry and the bass player, you keep playing, and then we did it like that. I think it was the simplicity of it that made it such a killer track. But of course, because it had been written like that, we didn’t think much of it, because you know what musicians are like. You’ve got to have it all complicated and it’s got to be fancy and all that. So we didn’t think much of it. But, of course, to our amazement, it became the biggest track on the radio that year. And like I said, we would have left it off. Of course, we don’t know anything. We’re musicians. We really are daft, you know.”

Off and running again, Fastway embarked on a tour that would see McCracken come aboard. Not long after coming off the road, Fastway went right back in the studio to record All Fired Up. And though it was deemed a success, both critically and commercially, Clarke knew something was missing. “It’s got some good spirit on it, but it wasn’t really like the first one,” said Clarke. “It didn’t have the spirit of the first one. To me, albums are all about spirit, and that’s why [Eat Dog Eat] is so nice. It’s got that spirit, you know – that sort of thing where you can’t put your finger on what it is.”

The lack of proper rest may have had something to do with it. Clarke’s troubled personal life also, perhaps, contributed to the flagging energy of All Fired Up. “I think the expectation was very high, because the first album had done so well, which always puts you on the back foot,” said Clarke. “We had started it in March or so. My mother had died that Christmas, which didn’t help and really put a downer on everything. And then of course we’d only gotten back from America on Dec. 15. We needed a bit of time. What record companies didn’t seem to understand back then was that you need a bit of space to come back from a six-month tour. You need some time off to re-energize yourself to start writing tunes again. Of course, we went straight into the rehearsal room. The same thing happened with Motorhead with the Iron Fist album. They threw us straight into it. They said, ‘We need an album next week,’ you know. So, you’re trying to write songs, but of course, you’re trying too hard.”

Making matters worse, Clarke feels producer Eddie Kramer, lauded for his work with Jimi Hendrix and other rock legends, didn’t give his all in the making of All Fired Up, after his excellent work on Fastway.
“Then, of course, Eddie Kramer, he didn’t come up with the goods the second time with the sounds on the album,” Clarke opined. “I thought the sound on the first one was brilliant. I thought the sound on All Fired Up was left wanting a bit. I thought Eddie Kramer sold us short on that one. We used the same band, the same studios … it should have sounded exactly the same as the first one. But it wasn’t, you know. It wasn’t. He was in a hurry to get back to America. He said, ‘Oh man, I can save you some money if we can cut this short by a whole week.’ We said, ‘Why would we want to do that?’”

Following Kramer’s advice, Fastway took the short cut. “And then of course, what happened was, we did the album,” continued Clarke. “He hurried back to America. Then the record company called me up. I was down fishing in Cornwall. I thought I’d get a bit of fishing in and hang out down there. I got this phone call in the middle of nowhere saying, ‘You’ve got to go back to the U.S. to remix half the album.’ And it kind of summed up my feeling about All Fired Up. Eddie Kramer sold us short on it. It’s just one of those things. And that’s why I never used Eddie again. I wouldn’t touch him, because I thought he really let us down. You know, when we remixed the album, I think we went to the Record Plant. And it was fun being in New York, but you know, it had gone down on tape wrong. Whatever we tried to do, I could hear that we weren’t actually doing anything to make it any better really.”

Whatever his feelings about the record were, the genie was already out of the bottle. All Fired Up was a fait accompli, and Clarke couldn’t scrap it and start over. “That wasn’t an option,” said Clarke. “The record company and management were leaning so heavily on us that that wasn’t an option. They never gave us that option. And of course, the record company, they don’t f**king know. ‘Oh, it sounds all right to us.’ Of course it didn’t sound right. If you thought it did, you wouldn’t have dragged me over here to remix half of it. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but …’ It was all that. And we got off to a bad start.”

In support of All Fired Up, Fastway were road warriors, but scattershot planning killed any possible momentum. After backing Iron Maiden and Saxon after the first album, Fastway toured with AC/DC for three months, “ … which was fantastic and they really know how to do it.” With All Fired Up, however, Fastway did a couple of weeks with the Scorpions, a couple of weeks with Rush and a few gigs with Billy Squier and then Ratt. “It was all broken up,” said Clarke. “So it was very hard to get any continuity going.”
According to Clarke, everybody in Fastway was unsatisfied with All Fired Up.

“I think we all thought we’d failed with the second record,” said Clarke. “And then the sh*t really hit the fan. Jerry went his way. I said I’d never work with Eddie again and that caused problems with Jerry. And one thing led to another, and Dave went back to Ireland then and started playing with his Irish band. And that’s when he said, ‘Look, why don’t you come over here and play with this band?’ And like an idiot, I said, ‘Okay.’ That was another mistake. That’s where the third record came from.”

That band included musicians from King's first group Stillwood. But with Waiting for the Roar, fans waited but the roar would never come. A chance for redemption, however, came to fruition in the form of a soundtrack for the horror movie “Trick or Treat.” It was to be King’s last dance with Fastway. “That was brilliant, because the third album had failed and Dave was already on his way out,” said Clarke. “Him and his Irish band, they wanted to go off and do something that was more Irish sounding group thing than heavy rock. He had started to complain, ‘I’m sick of every rock band. I’m sick of every rock thing.’ So we had our differences. But when I was off with ‘Trick or Treat,’ I said, ‘I’d love to do it.’ So I spoke to the director Charles Martin Smith [who also has acted in ‘American Graffiti’ and ‘The Untouchables’], and he was really up for it. And I said to Dave, ‘Well, let’s do this.’”

King, however, was reluctant, but Clarke was convincing. “I said, ‘Look man, you’re going to have to do it.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it as our swan song,’ our last thing together, because I discovered the guy for f**k’s sake. You know, I wanted to end on a high, rather than the other f**king thing, Waiting for the Roar. So we finally agreed. It was hard going, but it’s a bit like the track I was telling you about, ‘Leave the Light On’ or ‘Say What You Will,’ because it was a little bit strange. It was a little simpler, do you know what I mean? It was a little simpler and of course, I was being directed by Charles Martin Smith. He’d phone me up and say, ‘Look, we need a track for this thing,’ or ‘We need a track for this thing and such and such and such and such – something in that groove, you know that tempo.’ So I listened, just to get the groove and the tempo. And then I got an idea or would sit down and write something. But of course it was all simple because Dave wasn’t really into embellishing too much. It was all done pretty straightforward. And I thought the album came out fantastic. I really did with Trick or Treat.

King, on the other hand, didn’t. “Dave hated it. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. He hated it. Oh man, I’m sitting there, we’re on our last day of mixing, and I didn’t see him after that. He was gone. It was sad really, because I always thought he was me younger brother, you know. We had 10 years between us. I thought we’d been through a lot together, you know. I don’t know. I’ll never understand this f**king business and singers are very f**king hard work, man.”

New Beginnings

At ground zero again after King took almost everybody but Clarke who was left in Fastway and went on to form Q.E.D., Clarke picked up the pieces and teamed up with Hart. By then, however, Clarke’s drug and alcohol addictions had taken their toll, and Clarke was incapable of working much. Hart assumed the reins of Fastway and the result was On Target and Bad Bad Girls.

Fast forward to 2012 and Fastway is back, reloaded with Jepson and drummer Matt E. Eat Dog Eat has, at least to Clarke’s ears, erased some of the bad memories of the diminished states both Fastway and Clarke were in near the end. Tracks like the brooding “Fade Out,” which blooms into something more sprawling in the supernova choruses, and “Deliver Me,” with its sonic crunch, prove that Clarke is on to something, as do the dark acoustic meditation “Dead and Gone” and the driving “Sick as a Dog.”
As for what’s ahead with Fastway, Clarke is hopeful that the band will make a return to U.S. shores, provided that America will welcome them back.

“At the moment, we’ve just got to see … the album’s got to do a bit of business before we put any shows on for it,” said Clarke. “I’m hoping to get some feedback from America, maybe some offers, maybe we can do a few gigs here or there … I mean, I’ve got the guitar. I’m ready to go. I’m waiting, I’m keeping me powder dry at the moment, just going to wait and see what happens … and we’ll see if we get some good news and some positive signs.

Though he admits he’s had his day in the sun, Clarke would like Fastway to take off again so Jepson and Matt E. can experience the kind of wide acclaim he once did. That said, one last tour of America would be the icing on the cake for Clarke.

“Hey man, my dream is to strap on the guitar and take it to America one more time,” said Clarke. “It meant a lot to me when we were there with Fastway, because we did Fastway in England and we died here. Because of the Motorhead connection, a lot of the fans didn’t turn up. And I did think with the end of the tour here … well my career is over. Then we got a call from America saying, ‘Hey man, get over here. F**k, everybody’s playing ‘Say What You Will’ and you’re big.’ American fans saved my life, so I owe it to them … I’d love to do it one more time and play in America.”

‘$900 and a 1980 Honda Civic’: The story of Brad Smith’s journey from Blind Melon to Abandon Jalopy

Blind Melon’s self-titled debut LP turns 20 years old
By Peter Lindblad

Brad Smith

The white dress Shannon Hoon borrowed from his girlfriend for the occasion might as well have been a religious tunic. Appearing either messianic or slightly deranged, depending on your point of view, the late Blind Melon singer, colorful barrettes dangling from his stringy hair and smeared mascara framing his striking eyes, captivated and bewildered the Woodstock ’94 crowd with a manic, unhinged performance that led many to believe he was as high as a kite at the time.

From his vantage point onstage, Blind Melon bassist Brad Smith saw something different in the troubled Hoon that day. “I think his Woodstock performance in ’94 was really, really special because I had seen Shannon grow as a front man,” remembers Smith. “He really had command of that stage and he was really great. Everybody wanted to watch him. And that’s when I kind of realized, ‘Oh, we’re Shannon’s back-up band. We’re not Blind Melon.’ That’s the one show where it felt like we were Shannon’s band, for me personally. I don’t know if everybody feels that way. I thought Shannon was really strong. He looked amazing. He was really expressive. He was sober. And he was rocking out in front of 300,000 people.”

In characteristically unpredictable fashion, Hoon even tossed the band’s conga drums into the audience while the band plowed through “Time.” That was how wild Woodstock II got for Hoon and company.
Two days which will live in infamy, Woodstock ’94 eventually devolved into muddy, fiery mayhem and knuckleheaded violence. Blind Melon did not escape unscathed. Some critics were brutal in their assessment of Blind Melon’s gig; others were more kind. Despite all that, Smith looks back on Woodstock II as a transcendent experience for Blind Melon and the crowning moment in a meteoric rise to fame that flamed out all too soon – almost entirely due to the drug overdose that left Hoon dead in the band’s tour bus on October 21, 1995.

‘I never do reps’

In 2012, Smith has again started up Abandon Jalopy the solo project he created in the aftermath of Hoon’s death and then Blind Melon’s 1999 breakup.

Smith’s new album, Death and Joy, has hit the streets, and though it’s a more carefully crafted record than anything in the Blind Melon catalog, in some ways, it’s a throwback to the shaggy-haired, jam-happy, hippie mélange of folk, classic rock, jazz and neo-psychedelia that made Blind Melon a phenomenon in the early 1990s. One song in particular contains a touch of Hoon’s DNA.

“It was kind of cool on ‘Love Has a Way’ that Shannon’s daughter sang background vocals,” said Smith, who emphasized that Nico Blue is not seeking a music career and that he would dissuade her from doing so if she did express an interest. “We see Shannon’s daughter at least once a year. She comes out during the summer and visits us from California. She’s 16 now. So, last summer, I had ‘Love Has a Way’ on the burner, had my session already to go. And I was writing lyrics to it, changing some stuff, and she was here. And I said, ‘You should sing background vocals on this. You’d sound amazing.’ So, we came in here one afternoon, and we went through some stuff, and she stepped up to the mic and sang this really sweet sounding background vocal for ‘Love Has a Way.’ The punch line to that is love has a way of filling your heart, and I think it was kind of poignant for her to help with that song and get that message across.”

An artfully sketched piece of folk-pop that takes its cues from Dylan and Donovan, the hopeful, starry-eyed “Love Has a Way” is built around weathered acoustic strumming and Smith’s heartfelt vocals, while the funky “Dragonfly” features tight drum beats, swirls of sweaty organ and a kaleidoscopic, summery bridge of light piano and gently warped guitar sounds. And then there’s “Black Cloud,” a torrential downpour of slightly distorted, stabbing guitar, handclaps, rolling congas and surging emotions that come flooding out of Smith. It reflects how Smith feels about Blind Melon and the sausage grinder of a music industry that played a role in destroying Hoon.

“Most of that stuff is directly about how I feel or something that’s happening or what I’m trying to stay,” said Smith. “‘Black Cloud’ is basically about getting to a point in your life where you don’t really have a choice anymore. Your parents, when you grow up … you can do anything you want to do. You have this blank canvas, but I’ve been in bands and writing songs for so long, I don’t really want to do anything else. And I kind of came to that realization that I didn’t want to do anything else, and that’s not necessarily good for you. Rock and roll killed one of my best friends in a strange way, through drug addiction and not giving him a break or a reprieve from just the craziness that is rock and roll. And when Blind Melon got back together, with Travis [Warren in 2006], that was just laced with heartache and hard times, and ‘Black Cloud’ is one of those things where you’ve got to take the good with the bad.” 

The good, with Smith, is a restlessly creative spirit bent on exploring an amalgam of divergent musical styles in every songwriting venture he’s ever undertaken. Why he can’t seem to settle on just one genre is a mystery to the ever-eclectic Smith.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I don’t know … it’s really weird,” said Smith. “Every song that I ever write I feel is going to be my last. It is like, ‘Well, I’m never going to write one that good.’ Or, ‘I’m never going to write another song again.’ I really, honestly, in a strange way feel that way. I’m scared that I’m not going to be able to write a song again after I finish one. It’s really, really strange.”
And it’s too late for Smith to change now.

“You know, I’ve been writing songs since I was 14,” continued Smith. “I wrote ‘No Rain’ and I wrote ‘Toes Across the Floor’ and ‘Tones of Home’ and ‘Holyman.’ I wrote a bunch of songs for Blind Melon and they’re all a little bit different from each other. I don’t know if I even have a style. And I’m always worried about that. I mean, what do I sound like? What’s in my wheelhouse? If I wanted to write a song today, where would I go? I really don’t know. I feel like one of these weightlifters who just walks up to the bench and maxes out every time.  I never do reps. I don’t really do reps. It’s like when I sit down on the bench, I’m like, ‘Stack as much shit on there as you can and just go for it.’ I don’t really just work out. I go right for the heart and max out every time. That’s the long answer (laughs).”

That might explain why the long delay between Abandon Jalopy’s first album, 2003’s Mercy, and the much tighter and more immediate Death and Joy, two albums made under very different circumstances in Smith’s life.

“[Death and Joy is] probably a little tighter than [Mercy],” admits Smith. “I was one step away from the nuthouse with that record, because Shannon had died and I didn’t really play music or touch an instrument for eight months to a year. When I started writing for that record, I was all f**ked up. Yeah, [Mercy is] a good record. It turns out, I captured that moment for me personally. Yeah, I think there are about five good songs on that record.”

From the slaughterhouse to California

These days, Smith cherishes being an independent artist, and he takes his DIY ethos seriously. For Death and Joy, he actually ships orders out of his garage. A possible distribution deal is in the works, however, as sales have been more brisk than anticipated. If an agreement is reached, it could bring Death and Joy to record stores everywhere. 

A modest success so far, Death and Joy may never move the kind of units that Blind Melon’s 1992 self-titled debut – which turns 20 years old this year – did, having rocketed up the charts thanks to “No Rain” and a ubiquitous MTV video with a gleefully geeky dancing girl in a bee costume that nearly everyone on the planet fell in love with.

“I’ve gotten a bigger response from this record than I thought I would, to tell you the truth,” said Smith. “So I have this friend who is kind of advising me; he’s not really managing me, but he’s a manager that I can bounce stuff off of. And we’re of the mind at this point that we should go for some physical distribution. It’s on iTunes. You can buy it from my web site.”

These options, of course, were not available to Blind Melon when the band formed in California in 1989. A record deal with a major label used to be the path to fame and fortune, and it wouldn’t be long before those labels began showing up in droves on Blind Melon’s doorstep. But, before they did, Smith paid his dues and then some.

“I was busting concrete – literally busting concrete,” said Smith. “I was learning how to like pave driveways and build houses and all the while, I was doing open mic nights. I was playing down on Venice Beach. When I was down on Venice Beach, I was playing songs like ‘No Rain,’ you know? It was like one of the songs I wrote when I moved out to California.”

No stranger to menial labor, Smith learned the value of hard work in a Mississippi slaughterhouse. He had dropped out of college and took a job there one summer with an eye toward moving to the Golden State as soon as possible.

“I was working part-time there, but I got 40 hours,” related Smith, “and I saved up like $900 over a six-week period. Then, me and Rogers, who I grew up with, drove out to California with $900 and a 1980 Honda Civic wagon. Didn’t know a soul and just drove out here, did manual labor jobs.”

What Smith and Rogers found in California was a music scene dominated by hair-metal bands. They wanted no part of it. “You could kind of tell it was on its way out, but I just thought, ‘This music blows,’” said Smith. “I’m just not into it, you know. It is like, ‘Whoa, this is just not for me.’ Frankly, that was why I started playing open-mic nights, so I could do my own thing. There was no chance I was going to get swept up in it, because I didn’t subscribe to it in anyway.”

On occasion, however, Smith did give it a shot with some of L.A.’s more oddball acts. “I actually played in a band called the Glass Grenades, which was a girl-fronted group,” said Smith. “The band was really confused as to what we were going to do, what it sounded like. And she wrote all the material with her husband Carl. It was just very, very strange. I think after two gigs I said, ‘This is stupid. I’m going to go.’ I was also in a band called Damn and Janet, and that was really weird.”

For anybody who has ever seen the cult punk-rock film “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains,” Smith likes to compare Damn and Janet to the satirical fictional band the Metal Corpses. “The reason why I’m referencing this is because I just saw it recently and that movie is f**king hilarious,” laughs Smith. “I love that. You’ve got to go back and watch it. It’s so good, so good. But there’s band in there called Metal Corpses, and they kind of reminded me of this band I was in that was called Damn and Janet. It was based on the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ It was very strange.”

Looking for something a little less ridiculous and more in line with the home-grown classic rock he grew up with, Smith partnered with Stevens to start up Blind Melon. A true geographical melting pot, Blind Melon’s ranks included musicians from Pennsylvania, Indiana and Smith’s home state of Mississippi. Hoon was from the Hoosier State, and his sister Anna knew Guns ‘N Roses’ Axl Rose – which led to Hoon hooking up with Rose in L.A. and singing background vocals on various tracks from Use Your Illusion I and II, including “Don’t Cry” and “The Garden” from. After meeting Smith and Stevens at a party, he auditioned for them, and the song he sang was a keeper.

“I’ll tell you what Rogers and I tried out 20 singers – maybe 15 to 20 singers,” said Smith. “And I knew in the first seconds of him singing that he was the guy. It wasn’t even close. It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ He was fresh off the boat, from Indiana, with a small-town disposition, like Rogers and I had. We didn’t want to be part of the hair-metal rock scene at all. We just wanted to go for something that was genuine, fresh and real. I hate the word ‘real’ but we weren’t trying to cop someone else’s sound. We weren’t trying to play like someone else, and we came in with these great songs within weeks after meeting Shannon. But Shannon blew me away. What he played for his audition was that song ‘Change’ that’s on the first album. So he started into ‘Change,’ [sings] ‘I don’t feel the sun’s coming out today …’ Holy sh*t! It was just a great, great song.”

The sun did eventually break through the clouds for Blind Melon, but it sure took its sweet time. 

What’s in a name?

The pieces in place, with Hoon, Stevens and Smith joined by guitarist Christopher Thorn and drummer Glen Graham, the band needed a name, and before they settled on Blind Melon, none of the choices they had seemed promising.

“You know, naming your band is really hard and it’s really kind of funny, too,” explains Smith. “It’s kind of like a bunch of grown-up dudes naming their clubhouse. You know what I mean? ‘What should we call our clubhouse? I want to call it the ‘point of no return’ or something like that.’ It’s like one of those things, like ‘Oh, we’ve got to name it.’ It’s one of those things where you’re just not into it. So, there were a bunch of bad names floating around, and everybody saying, ‘That’s fine,’ like How Now Brown Cow, which was a terrible band name. Or, I think Head Train was one of them, which was really stupid.”

There were more, but none were appealing. Then, out of the clear blue sky, Smith hit upon the name by accident.

“I came in just telling a story, ‘You guys ever hear of that Cheech and Chong movie, like there’s a guy in there named Blind Melon Chitlin?’” said Smith. “They were like, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘My dad used to scream that at his buddies.’ It was like ‘Look out there Blind Melon.’ And they were like doing a spoof on the Cheech and Chong movie. And I think Rogers or Christopher said that would be a good band name, Blind Melon. And I said, ‘Yeah, that really is.’ It has the kind of blues connotation. It’s actually from a comic book. A lot of people don’t know that. But Cheech Marin was kind of doing a spoof of Blind Lemon Jefferson, and he was Blind Melon Chitlin. And my dad would quote lines from the movie and say, ‘What’s happenin’ Blind Melon?’ Like he was Cheech and Chong, but my dad would say that all the time. So, as a five-year-old, I was like, ‘What is he talking about?’ And it got stuck in my head. And I learned all this stuff years later. I didn’t know where the name came from.”

There were more pressing matters to attend to, though, including demoing some songs to attract label interest. Tight on money, Blind Melon made do with the decidedly lo-fi equipment they had.  “When the band got together, up and running, we were recording all the music live to cassette – literally, a home stereo cassette,” said Smith. “And just running live … I would mic everything up and get everybody to the side of the cassette deck and tell everybody to shut up ‘cause I couldn’t hear, you know. So, we were, in a weird way, blindly, just testing things out, stopping, testing things out, you know. But, we got to the point where we just said, ‘Let’s do the whole thing on cassette’ – just the music, not the vocals. And then, at home, Shannon and I both had four-track recorders. So we’d take the cassette deck, put it in there and tracks three and four were open for vocals.”

It was the four-song demo The Goodfoot Workshop – some of Blind Melon’s highly sought-after initial demos have wound up in the hands of friends of the band, according to Smith – that had tongues wagging in the music industry. Though they only had a handful of songs at the ready, Blind Melon conned label representatives into thinking that they had more stashed away. Many A&R types attended Blind Melon rehearsals to see what all the fuss was about. Smartly, Smith and company would end the sets playing only five songs and then claiming they were too tired to go on. All the while, Blind Melon was being wined and dined without ever having to do any club shows.

“I think we had 100 percent approval rating among people who got the cassette,” said Smith. “They were like, ‘Yeah, I want to see this band.’ And they didn’t want us to play live. They basically said, ‘Don’t book a show.’ They were probably afraid other people would hear us. But, we did private showcases. We did 11, probably 14 private showcases. I remember Capitol, Epic, MCA … I mean everybody. And all these people wanted to do private showcases with us. So that’s basically how we got signed. We didn’t even play a live show. I think we played one or two live shows – somebody’s birthday party, something like that. We were recording artists first. We weren’t really a live band first.”

With a little bit of money in their pockets after signing with the label that won their hearts – Capitol that is – Blind Melon succumbed to the temptations of the Hollywood lifestyle, even though they knew they still had plenty of work to do. An EP titled Slippin’ Time Sessions was finished in 1991, but the members of Blind Melon found it too slick for their liking, so they tossed it aside. Realizing they needed a quieter place to work and develop some chemistry, they decided to leave Southern California for a spell, telling the label they needed a year to hone their sound. They ended up in Durham, North Carolina, where they rented a dwelling that would come to be known as the “sleepyhouse.”

“I think we got caught up in Hollywood after we got signed. We had money. Everybody had some money,” said Smith. “We didn’t realize it was like really nothing. We didn’t really have that much money to say, f**k all, you know. But, we ended up as a band making the decision to move across the country, and you know, I’ve been asked that question, ‘Why did you have to go to Durham?’ And I have no idea. I don’t know why we went to Durham, but we did. We all lived in a house together. Somebody thought it was a good idea, and we kind of went along with it.”

While there, Blind Melon made good use of the time. “We had recording equipment in the living room. There were five bedrooms. And we all stayed in our own bedrooms and wrote songs and came down every night when the sun went down and rehearsed, just played songs and recorded on our 8-track we bought,” said Smith. “And it was kind of a short-lived thing, but it was very productive. I think Glen pointed out to me a year ago, he said, ‘You know, we were only in Durham for four months.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ It felt like a year. We were only there for four months, but we got great songs out of that. We wrote ‘Sleepyhouse,’ ‘Soak the Sin?’ and ‘Deserted’ – all these great songs that came out of the ‘sleepyhouse’ as we called it.”
There was nothing sleepy about Blind Melon’s eponymous first album. Loose and lovably shambolic, Blind Melon’s earthy jams and Southern-rock infused sound had a visceral energy and a sunny disposition that would, in time, win over the alternative-rock community. Initially, however, the release garnered little attention, and that had everyone concerned.

“For a moment, I think the company and maybe our management, at some point, and even us, thought it wasn’t going to happen,” said Smith. “We weren’t going to break out of the 100,000 to 200,000 units sold. We toured in a van for over a year and a half before ‘No Rain’ hit. And there were other songs that were out as singles. ‘Tones of Home’ was a single, ‘Dear Ol’ Dad’ was a single, ‘Paper Scratcher’ was a single, and it wasn’t until ‘No Rain’ … the irony is, [‘No Rain’] tested really badly on radio. They would have all these panels. They would test it at radio to see how it would go over or what the people would say. And oh, this ‘No Rain’ is not going to fly. But there were a couple of people at Capitol Records who really believed in that song and fought the odds.”

Originally released in 1992, “No Rain” was given another kick at the can a year later. The Samuel Beyer-directed video helped propel the single up the U.S. pop charts, and on the strength of “No Rain,” Blind Melon reached multi-platinum nirvana. Unfortunately, the band was across the pond when “No Rain” blew up and was unable to build on the song’s success, even with strong tracks like “Change” and “Tones of Home” ready to go.

“We didn’t have super great management at the time,” said Smith. “They didn’t really lay out this long-range plan for success for us. They just had us doing what everybody else was doing – just tour until we have a hit on radio. They didn’t set it up to have anything waiting in the wings. We also, while ‘No Rain’ was I think No. 3 on the charts in the United States, we were in Europe. It was like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Now that I look back on it, I’m a bass player and I know not to do that.”

What Smith does know is that Blind Melon had a unique quality that set it apart from other albums of the era.  “It was a very dry record,” said Smith. “There’s hardly any reverb on anything. It was very dry, close mic-ed. Very few room sound mics and things like that. It was really straight in your face. I thought it was good. I thought it very original sounding. I think grunge was king at the time, and I think people at Capitol didn’t know what to do with us. It was a very original and raw record. They kind of strong-armed us into the grunge category. I don’t know why, but they did. I mean, I don’t think they … I think they based part of their opinion because we used the same record producer as Pearl Jam, Rick Parashar [who produced Ten]. But we didn’t sound anything like Pearl Jam, which was funny. I don’t think we did. It was dry sounding, it was like rock, you know. It was a killer record; it was so good. But I didn’t think we really sounded like them. I think we sounded closer to like the Allman Brothers.”

Every cliché in the book

If Blind Melon confused the good people at Capitol, Soup, the follow-up, must have completely baffled them. Released in 1995, eight weeks before Hoon’s death, Soup was all over the map, with murder songs like the country-flavored “Skinned” and “Car Seat (God’s Presents)” bumping up against uplifting fare like “New Life.” A song of salvation for Hoon, the lyrics of “New Life” had everything to do with his new baby girl Nico Blue and his hope for a better future.

It wouldn’t come. Hoon continued his downward spiral, fighting his addiction with every breath he had. A confounding individual, Hoon’s drug-fueled, hair-trigger temper always seemed at odds with what was an otherwise caring and sweet nature. His increasing unreliability, however, caused headaches for the rest of the band. “When he was in rehab and things like that, it came down to things like scheduling,” said Smith. “Were we going to be a band or weren’t we going to be a band? That was frustrating.”

Hoon’s demons would get the best of him, and the savage beating Soup took in the music press added more stress to Blind Melon. Informed by the band’s wild time in New Orleans, Soup took on the disparate, dissolute character of the Big Easy. “I was a vampire back then for sure. I was getting up at 4 in the afternoon and writing songs and playing billiards,” said Smith. “It’s just action 24-7. You could go out anytime, whenever you were awake, there was something to do and some trouble to be found. It was crazy.”

Looking back, Smith is not at all surprised at the reaction Soup got. To him, it was a bizarre record, the product of feverish creativity. “I thought it was such a weird, crazy record I was amazed people got it at all,” said Smith. “You know what I mean? I was like, man, people really like this record. I was shocked, but I’m always shocked when people seem to like something crazy and weird. It was definitely not a hit-laden record. I think what some people don’t know about that record is how prolific the band was. We wrote, collectively, and tidied up 24 pieces of music within like a three-week period, and we went straight to the studio with Andy Wallace, so everybody was writing songs with a vengeance. And just the power and how prolific the band was at that stage of its career was kind of astounding.”

Much has been written of Hoon’s life, his death and what he left behind. In some ways, the memories of Hoon and his soul-baring lyrics tend to overshadow Blind Melon’s accomplishments. Left to pick up the pieces, the remaining members of Blind Melon tried to carry on without Hoon, but too much had happened, too many things had gone wrong. And replacing a force of nature like Hoon was almost impossible. Still, though, people haven’t forgotten about Blind Melon. There are myriad web sites devoted to all things related to the band, plus books and other types of tribute. Blind Melon has become an honest-to-goodness cult band, and Smith is humbled by the fact that they have not been relegated to dustbin of history.

“We made every mistake and cliché in the book that you can think of – everyone,” said Smith. “I mean, ‘Spinal Tap’ is not funny to me, right down to the singer ODing like right before the second record. Every bit of bad luck, or bad breaks, or bad choices – everything we did as a band to destroy ourselves did not deter people still from connecting with the music and the stories and Shannon’s spirit even today. And believe me I’m blown away by it. I think there are probably no better fans than Blind Melon fans.”

As for Abandon Jalopy, Smith doesn’t harbor any illusions. “I’m going to take it as it comes,” said Smith. “The response has been so positive that it makes me want to tour, get physical distribution, and I’m going to go out and play some songs. I’m going to play smaller places. I’ve got two records worth of material to choose from, plus I can throw in a Blind Melon song here and there, and play sets and go out in front of people who want to hear it. I know people want to hear it live, so I want to make that happen.”