Small venues are my favourite spaces to enjoy live music, and when you combine the intimacy and ease of access of such venues with the enjoyment of experiencing at close quarters a live performance by a truly world-class musician, then I am in my own personal seventh heaven. There is one world-class guitarist who I have seen many times at various art centres and small clubs, including on one occasion at Formby Royal British Legion, in and around the North West of England over the last twenty years, and that is Albert Lee. While Albert Lee may not be a household name as a solo artist, his work as a session guitarist and gun for hire means he has played with some of the biggest artists in the world and he has had a material influence on the sound of country rock and country guitar playing. It is his guitar playing and unerring ear for a good tune and impeccable taste in his backing musicians that make an Albert Lee gig such a pleasure.
Albert Lee was born into a musical Romani family in 1943 and his first instrument was piano, something he still plays today, before taking up the guitar like his hero Buddy Holly. He first established his reputation as an R&B guitarist backing Chris Farlowe in the ‘60s, but he has said he was always a country player at heart. This love of country music lead to the formation of Head, Hands and Feet who were a popular live act on the early ‘70s progressive circuit though it isn’t clear how many fans who appreciated Lee’s guitar pyrotechnics appreciated where his inspiration was coming from. The band broke up at the start of 1973 but not before acting as the house band for Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘The Session….Recorded In London with Great Guests’. Next Lee was invited to join The Crickets as a replacement for Glen D. Hardin who was returning to Elvis Presley’s band for some Las Vegas shows. Lee was invited to join The Crickets in the UK through his friendship with their then bassist, ex-Family and Blind Faith band member, Ric Grech, and he recorded ‘Remnants’ and ‘A Long Way From Lubbock’ with them as a well as playing a number of UK and US tours. There is an interesting footnote to Grech and Lee’s time with the Crickets, and that is that Gram Parsons, who was a friend of Grech’s, was keen to join them for a tour of the Southern States, but this was vetoed by Jerry Allison because of Parson’s drug use and the risks posed by the draconian Southern drug laws. It was at the end of this tour as he was returning home to California that Ric Grech heard that Parsons had died. Lee left The Crickets in 1974, though he has continued to play with them occasionally over the years, and returned to session work before replacing his hero James Burton in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. Lee subsequently had five years in the Eric Clapton band which coincided with the release of his first solo albums, before facilitating The Everly Brothers reunion in 1983. He stayed with The Everlys for the next twenty years before reactivating his solo career backed by the UK’s Hogan Heroes.
This is where I came in, and though I have seen Alert Lee backed by his American band, including a guest appearance by Cindy Cashdollar on steel guitar, the majority of shows have been with Hogan’s Heroes. Greg Hogan is a British pedal steel player who has been heavily involved in the pub rock scene of the ‘70s and subsequently UK country together countless sessions for anyone needing a bit of steel guitar, and he was joined by Peter Baron on drums and Brian Hodgson on bass, with a revolving keyboard chair that has included Pete Wingfield, Elio Pace, and Gavin Povey. During this time Albert Lee’s shows reminded me of Jerry Garcia’s, in that he has a fairly small list of preferred songs from throughout his career, with the odd sprinkle of new tunes if a new album was in the offing but nothing too radical was ever done to the setlist. While this may sound boring, like Garcia, the pleasure was in the actual performance of the mostly familiar tunes. While Lee can shred with the best, the good taste that made him an ace session guitarist always ensures he serves the song despite the mindboggling solos and improvisations he can get from his six strings. Peter Baron and Brian Hodgson may not have been household names, and they certainly don’t exhibit any rock star sheik, but their years of studio experience means they were an impeccable rhythm section who can follow wherever Lee wants to take the song. All the keyboard players have been able to bring colour, and country and rock’n’roll piano to the mix. The tunes Albert Lee plays range from early rock’n’roll tracks, early ‘60s pre-Beatles pop to country rock and on to americana greats like Jesse Winchester, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt, as well as songs by band members, particularly Brian Hodgson.
I’ve often wondered why Albert Lee as a solo artist isn’t more popular as a live attraction and why he has been playing similar-sized venues for twenty years. It could be that he always put more effort into his sideman career than his own solo career which was started in the late ‘70s but was put largely on hold during his tenure with The Everly Brothers. It may be that with the exception of a handful of songs, notably his self-written classic ‘Country Boy’ from his Heads Hands and Feet days, his shows largely contain cover versions of other artists’ songs. Whatever the reason, he has remained a cult artist as a live performer, but that doesn’t stop his superstar friends and ex-employers from dropping into his concerts whenever they get the chance. If you are a fan of good music and are interested in the history, and pre-history, of americana and you haven’t been to an Albert Lee concert then you owe it to yourself to attend at least one so see a master guitarist who may be British, but who has influenced countless roots and country guitarists and who has helped define the actual sound of country rock guitar.
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