Off the Road Yet On the Road: A Talk with Alvin Lee, Part One

Guitarist Alvin Lee first rose to international prominence with his band Ten Years After. The band’s performance of “I’m Going Home” is a highlight of both the Woodstock film and the accompanying soundtrack. The band enjoyed a number of hits – most notably 1971’s “I’d Love to Change the World.” In 1973 Lee stepped out for a solo album, On the Road to Freedom. He has remained active since leaving TYA, with a relatively consistent string of solo albums. His latest record bears echoes of his first solo release, and showcases his mastery of a wide array of styles. Recently, Alvin spoke with me from his home in Spain. – bk

Bill Kopp: The first thing I notice when listening to Still On the Road to Freedom is perhaps the most obvious, but it’s also remarkable: Your voice. Your singing voice as heard on this new album: it doesn’t sound a bit different from the way you sounded on “I’d Love to Change the World” or “I’m Going Home,” forty years ago. Do you do anything to keep your voice in shape?

Alvin Lee: No. I’m afraid I haven’t any secrets to divulge about that. That’s just the way it is; genetics, probably.

BK: Your music has – to me – always been rooted in a number of styles: as opposed to just, say, blues, there’s always been a strong early rock’n’roll/rockabilly sensibility to your original songs. “I’m a Lucky Man,” on the new record, for example, could easily be a cover from 1957.

AL: It almost could have been recorded in 1957. I tried to get the authentic sound on that one; I was quite pleased with it.

BK: On songs like that, do you set out to write in a particular style, or do you just write a song first and then apply a particular style to it?

AL: The style generally comes along with the song. That one has pretty much of a rock’n’roll, “Whole Lotta Shakin’” rhythm. So I get the rhythm going, and then I think, “What am I going to say in this one?”

BK: One of the trends that I notice among many artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s is a tendency to – how can I put it – stop rocking. One can go too far in one direction or another: you could get all acoustic and mellow, or you could rock out 100% of the time and come off a bit ridiculous.

AL: That’s always been the dilemma, hasn’t it? That’s why I did Still On the Road to Freedom, because I’m right in the middle, between the two.

BK: You balance the two extremes nicely on this record. You have contemplative, acoustic tracks like “Walk On, Walk Tall,” but they sit nicely alongside the rockers. Was that mix, that variety, by design?

AL: I’ve always been keen to not be obsessed, to not get stuck with styles. Because I like so many different styles of music. I like things by Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery. All those guys have been an influence.

BK: On 2009’s Saguitar, the cover art shows that iconic Gibson that’s become so closely associated with you. Do you still use the ES, and – besides acoustic guitars – what other guitars do you use?

AL: I don’t use that one, any more. Which is quite sad: unfortunately, it’s locked up in a vault. Ever since somebody offered me half a million dollars for it! I wrote in the song “Once There Was a Time” [on Ten Years After‘s 1971 LP A Space in Time] that I’d never sell my guitar. And I’ve kept to that one.

I’ve got several guitars. Gibson made an anniversary replica of the Woodstock guitar; they made a hundred hand-built ones, and then they put it into production. There’s quite a few kicking about. But I like to use off-the-shelf guitars; if anything happens to one, you can replace it easily.

Some of the bands I’ve seen, they take fifteen guitars on the road. A hundred thousand quid worth of guitars onstage; it’s madness. It’s all very well, but I prefer to play just one guitar, and try to make it do as many things as I can.

BK: What sort of gigs are you doing in support of the new album?

AL: I did a gig about a month ago in Holland, at a festival. It was really great; the Dutch people are really cool. The festival had a huge arts section, with paintings, dancers. A lot of stuff going on. Before that, I was busy finishing the album, so I hadn’t had a gig – and the band hadn’t played together – in eight months. And of course at a festival, there’s no sound check; there are bands playing all day. So went onstage cold, not having played for eight months, and then we actually played one of the best gigs in any of our lives!

I think that’s because, when you play every night, you can start to go into “auto.” The thing is to play as much as you can, but to still enjoy it. And of course in the 1970s, Woodstock having been a big deal, I was playing five, six, seven nights a week. You do that, and you can start becoming a traveling jukebox: stand us up, plug us in, and we’ll blast out the same old set.


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