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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rock Gods Spotlight #2: Bass

In this edition of the Rock Gods Spotlight, I'll be discussing the unsung heroes of Rock who bring a layer of depth and groove to contrast the screaming guitar chords, the mighty bass players.  Listen to your favorite Rock songs, paying special attention to the bass line, that deep groove that pulses throughout the song, then try to imagine the songs without it.  That void comes from what many people consider the least important member of a band, which is why I call them the unsung heroes.

I admittedly never gave much consideration to the amount of impact the bass can have on a song, and ironically it wasn't hearing a particular bass player in a band that clued me in, it was hearing what a particular artist could do on a bass guitar, as a solo artist without a band.  Stu Hamm, longtime collaborator with guitarist Joe Satriani, has released a number of solo albums, mostly backed by a band and sometimes including his own vocals.  His solo album "The Urge" contains a live solo track recorded during one of his shows.  When I heard that solo track for the first time I was mesmerized even before I heard the opening notes to the Peanuts theme "Linus And Lucy".  From that moment on, I found myself paying closer attention to the bass lines from my favorite songs and it wasn't hard to pick out my favorite players based on the impact they had in their respective bands.

As an exercise, I'm going to mention a bass player but I won't name his band until I've finished talking about him in order to test my unsung hero theory.  His name is Tim Commerford, and I think his contribution is absolutely imperative to the magnitude of his band's sound because you can hear it right up there with the other parts.  Listen to any song from this band, and his playing is so huge and so powerful that I cannot possibly imagine any of their music coming off as large as it does without him.  He's been in two very well-known bands, although the second is more of a spin-off of the first than anything and was fairly short-lived despite releasing a trilogy of albums in their time.  The band he's most known for has created some of the most powerful and politically-charged music ever, but the spotlight has always been placed on the singer and guitarist.  On songs like "People Of The Sun" and "No Shelter", his bass is hardly in the background, but right out in front with an urgency to it like he's trying to incite a riot even before the song breaks and the guitars start in.  The band is Rage Against The Machine, and for those who knew that by his name I assume you recognize his impact as I do.  For those who had no clue who Tim is until I revealed what band he plays in, you've proven my unsung heroes theory.

Another absolute maniac on the bass is Les Claypool of Primus, whose playing is so distinctive it really becomes the main focus of their sound.  Because he's also the singer of Primus he's more well-known so there's nothing unsung about the man responsible for "My Name is Mud" and "Jerry Was A Racecar Driver".  I saw them live during the Family Values tour in 1998, and it was quite an experience seeing him strut across the stage plucking away at his bass.  I had one of their albums "Pork Soda" which had a few very interesting songs on it, like "DMV", which is a very accurate account of spending the day at one of their offices, and Mr. Krinkle, with its huge cello opening.  Les Claypool has said to be most influenced by Heavy Metal legend Geezer Butler, and it shows when he teamed up with Ozzy for a cover of Black Sabbath's "N.I.B." on the Nativity In Black II tribute album.  You can listen HERE to Les completely shredding on the opening sequence, which I consider the greatest 32 seconds of Rock ever recorded.

Flea, the aptly-named pint-sized bass-slapping genius of the Red Hot Chili Peppers hardly looks God-like by any interpretation, until he plugs in.  Flea is the funkiest, freakiest and most colorful bass player in music (in both style and appearance, except maybe for Bootsie Collins) and may even take singular impact to the next level, going as far as saying his playing defines the sound of the band.  Seeing Flea live in concert is like watching the Tasmanian Devil playing bass, bouncing around and spinning his head as though it's barely attached to his body.  On the exterior he's basically a Rock 'N' Roll cartoon character, but inside his style and the way he mixes melody with madness is beautiful chaos.  On tracks like "Otherside" and "Californication", he shows his more melodic and technical side but when they break into "Give It Away" or "Higher Ground" the volume goes to 11 and Flea's not so small anymore.

To stand out as an individual in any band can be a challenge, but to have your skills noticed when you have someone like Neil Peart playing drums behind you or going up against Alex Lifeson's classic riffs is quite an astonishing feat.  Rush's Geddy Lee takes on bass, vocals and keyboards and has been doing so for more than 30 years now.  His voice is a bit polarizing, you either hate it or love it, but when he tears through "Yyz" or "Tom Sawyer" it's not his vocals most people are tuned in to.  Rush puts out a huge sound coming from only 3 members, mostly thanks to Geddy's versatility but also because they are three musicians at the top of their game, each legends on their own, and one of the few remaining Rock bands with the original lineup intact minus the drama and turmoil that has plagued most of their peers.  Geddy's bass really stands out best on the group's instrumental tracks, but on their heavier tunes it's right up there with Lifeson's riffs and in recent years you can really see him digging in deep on their classic tracks to give them new life.

Among my favorite bass players of all time is someone for whom the title "unsung" is almost insultingly understated, and Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament is not only one of my favorite bass players but favorite musicians in general.  Pearl Jam profoundly changed the way I hear and absorb music, and a lot of it has to do with hearing Jeff's style and his outlook on music.  Whether he's sitting on a stool with a stand-up bass on the deep album cuts, or going Punk on recent tracks like "Got Some", I hear his playing loud and clear and it's hard to imagine them without him, like RATM without Tim.  Jeff views music much like I do, for the way it can change your whole outlook.  On the "Single Video Theory" DVD, which documents the sessions that became my favorite Pearl Jam album "Yield", he mentions how music can be one of the more healing art forms and I couldn't possibly agree more.  Of course, with a variety of side projects like RNDM and Tres Mtns, Pearl Jam is just one of Jeff's outlets and as long as he can balance them all there can never bee too much music from Jeff Ament in the world. 

There really are a number of incredible bass players, some more credited than others, and I'd have to give honorable mention to Michael Anthony of Chickenfoot (previously Van Halen), Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, and Stefan Lessard of the Dave Matthews Band.  In a post titled "Rock Gods Spotlight", I'm certain every member of Led Zeppelin is expected to be recognized, but I'm sorry I just have never considered John Paul Jones' playing terribly important to their sound, but you can bet you'll see Bonzo in Spotlight #3, Drums!  Stay tuned!

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