Golden Shred: Morse, Luthaker, Vai, Lee and Graydon guest on a guitar led instrumental album which takes 60s classics and gives them new life.
Once upon a time, two school friends started playing music together. After graduating, one of them, Sterling Ball, joined his father Ernie, who at the time was running a small company making guitar strings. This fledgeling company grew, of course, into a much bigger entity and started to make guitars too. Sterling is now Chief Executive Officer of that company… Ernie Ball Music Man. So, join The Mutual Admiration Society golden shred guitar playing with the company of great musicians.
In 1983 Sterling met up again with John Ferraro, his music partner from school and suggested they start a band to tour the local club scene. John recruited his college mate, Jim Cox, and they formed Biff Baby’s All Stars. The intention was for Sterling, normally a bass guitarist, to play the lead but another longtime friend had other ideas…Albert Lee had known Sterling since they met at a concert in 1972, and he wanted to be part of this new band. He was Albert Lee, so he was in, and Sterling went back to playing bass. This band of friends went on to tour for 30 years!
Fast-forward to 2017 and Sterling suggested they do an album together. What started as a project for these longtime friends grew into something so much bigger. As various guitar legends heard about the get-together, and much like Lee all those years ago, they decided they wanted to a part of it. And so The Mutual Admiration Society was born.
The first track is the Jesse Winchester composed Payday Song. A country stomp with gorgeous fluid playing from all involved. A crystal clear picked solo is the highlight of a familiar standard.
Next is The In Crowd, written by Billy Page, but probably best known from the cover by Brian Ferry. It takes on another life as an instrumental and is graced by the trademark sound of Steve Morse who puts in a sterling (!) performance as usual. A beautifully constructed and original solo without too much double picking and played with real feeling.
Checkin’ Up On My Baby is the Sonny Boy Williamson blues tune covered by Gary Moore and John Mayall amongst others. Here it gets a rebuild, with great organ tones behind every ‘verse’ and providing a cracking solo too. Sterling Ball is on his own here, proving what a good guitarist he is. Baby Please Don’t Go was written by Big Joe Williams. The definitive version is, in my opinion, to be found on Never Turn Your Back on a Friend by the criminally underrated Budgie. This does get close, however, as we get Steve Luthaker doing all of the guitar work and blending in a lovely solo.
Treat Her Right was written by Roy Head and Gene Kurtz as a country blues number. Here it becomes a delightful shuffle with the warmth further enhanced by a Jim Cox keyboard solo. Reminiscent at times of Green Onions, it moves along very pleasantly.
Sugar Shack was a big hit in 1963 for Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs and its inclusion here is thanks to Steve Vai who, apparently has wanted to play this since he was 4 years old. He plays a fascinating wah, wah on the verses before launching into an impressive, very clever interpretative solo. Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee now comes with a mandolin! A straightforward, countrified reading of this well-known song with Sterling on guitar and mandolin. Most successfully covered by Ray Charles, Cryin’ Time was composed by Buck Owens. Here it becomes a “British Country” tune thanks to the amazing style and performance of Albert Lee.
Now, how about some Jackson 5? Their huge hit I Want You Back is covered here. It sounds so familiar and yet, with Sterling’s picking carving out the verses on both lead and bass it sounds so different. Even more outrageous, how about a Disney Medley? Suggested by the guest guitarist, none other than John Petrucci, this mix of When You Wish Upon a Star and Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah (plus a couple I didn’t know) is transformed by Petrucci’s fretboard work. He turns them into lessons in how to transform the light-hearted into serious guitar workouts. Tremendous fun!
Hank Williams gets the Albert Lee treatment on Hey Good Lookin’. Inevitably, another country approach, brilliantly executed. The penultimate tune is the only original on the album. Composed by Ferraro, Cox and Ball it features Jay Graydon on guitar. Graydon is a noted composer, producer and session musician, responsible for hits by Earth, Wind and Fire, George Benson and Manhattan Transfer to name but few. An almost tropical feel to this, so how they arrived at the title Strip Mall Gourmet I have no idea. Good interplay between guitar and keyboards.
Finally, we get the Guy Clark penned Heartbroke. Clark was a prolific country singer and composer. This song has been covered by Ricky Skaggs and is another excursion into beautifully played country music. A bonus of a bass solo has been imaginatively inserted too.
Before I summarise, a confession:
Within my 2000+ CD collection, you will find every session Steve Morse has ever done (and that is a hell of a lot!). I also own an Ernie Ball Music Man Steve Morse Signature Edition guitar (the original one, with the bewildering array of pick-ups and switches). I’ve followed him since his Steve Morse Band days and celebrated his recruitment into my favourite band, Deep Purple, knowing he could help them become great again. However, although his presence is the reason I bought the CD, there is so much more to this work and, I promise no bias.
Overall then, what you get here is a very country blues feeling collection, interspersed with rockier aspects provided by the guest guitarists. Possibly a little too heavy on the country for some tastes, but if you want time to pass pleasantly and effortlessly, then this is the soundtrack for it.
Thoroughly enjoyable, even if it will only go in the CD player when I want to lie back and relax with an instrumental album and a decent bottle of red wine; and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Sterling Ball; bass, electric and acoustic guitar, mandolin, ukulele
John Ferraro; drums
Jim Cox; keyboards
Special Guests: (all guitarists!)
Jeremy Moyers; steel guitar
Dave Stone; stand up bass
Brad Hayman; slap bass
Sterling Ball, John Ferraro, Jim Cox – The Mutual Admiration Society – Mascot Label Group
SEVENdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Payday Song
- The In Crowd (Steve Morse)
- Checkin’ Up On My Baby
- Baby Please Don’t Go (Steve Luthaker)
- Treat Her Right
- Sugar Shack (Steve Vai)
- Memphis (aka Memphis, Tennessee)
- Cryin’ Time (Albert Lee)
- I Want You Back
- Disney Melody
- Hey Good Lookin’ (Albert Lee)
- Strip Mall Gourmet (Jay Graydon)
The album was recorded at Broken Prop Studio in California; produced by Ball, Ferraro, Cox, Engineered by Bill Evans, tracked by Gordon Rustvold, mixed by Rich Mouser, and mastered by Robert Vosgien.