Alvin Lee - Still On The Road to Freedom
Interviews 2012

Alvin's newest CD, Still On the Road to Freedom has been released on Rainman Records in the USA and in Europe on Repertoire Records.

We've printed a few of Alvin's most recent interviews discussing Still On the Road to Freedom ...but please remember to visit the websites of the interviewers. And don't forget to catch some of the reviews.

Vintage Rock

The Alvin Lee Interview

Discussion about guitar heroes from the 1960s typically revolves around Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, with an occasional shout-out to Pete Townshend, Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia. Of course, there were many other able-bodied guitarists from the era who could swing with the best of them. One man who regularly topped the polls and still commands a hefty penance of reverence is Alvin Lee.

As the guitarist, voice, songwriter and focal point of Ten Years After, Lee’s furious playing propped up by a no-nonsense, semi-rockabilly approach was key to the band’s live performances. Nowhere is this more apparent than by the 10-minute scene from the Woodstock movie featuring Lee and TYA blazing through “I’m Going Home.” By the time the band made its way to the mainstream, Lee had decided to switch gears and make his first solo album (with Mylon LeFevre) boosting a title that more or less summed up his feelings at the time — On The Road To Freedom.

In the years since, Alvin Lee has not become a superstar solo act, but he’s cranked out over a dozen albums of varying styles and disciplines, and worked with people like George Harrison, Mylon LeFevre, Ron Wood, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. His 2012 release, Still On The Road To Freedom, is simply, as he told me during the following interview, a reassertion of his independence, making “free music for the soul.” At 67, living comfortably in Spain, playing as fluidly and furiously as ever — Alvin Lee is on a road to freedom most certainly paved with gold.

Hi Alvin. It’s great to be speaking with you today. How’s it going?

I’m doing fine. Thank you very much.

How is it in Spain today?

Oh, it’s warm as usual. Pretty much like California. Where are you exactly?

I'm in Long Beach, California.

Great. I only ask because I was talking to a guy yesterday for about 20 minutes, and he said, “Well, if you’re ever Detroit‛&” And I said, “Oh, you’re in Detroit?” And we went on for another half an hour, talking about Detroit. That’s a rock ‘n roll city. Long Beach Arena‛&I remember it well...

I saw you there in the late 70s with Ten Years Later.

Oh yeah? Cool.

So, let’s get into Still On The Road To Freedom, the sequel to your 1973 album, On The Road To Freedom.

It’s not really a sequel. It's just the title track. I wrote the title song, "Still On The Road To Freedom.” It's not meant to be a sequel. I think someone said that in the anecdote. It doesn’t matter. It’s an extension‛&no, it’s not even that (laughs). The only link is the freedom to write music I want. On The Road To Freedom was about that, and Still On The Road To Freedom is about that too.

You don’t have the same musicians as the first one. You have bassist Pete Pritchard, drummer Richard Newman, and keyboardist Tim Hinkley, who played on the first one.

That’s right. Tim has playing keyboards with me for years since ’72. In fact, me and Tim had a band together called the Gits — with Tim, me, Ian Wallace on the drums and Mel Collins on the sax. We didn’t actually do any touring; we just recorded, played and had fun.

You’re covering a lot of ground and different styles on the new record – blues, country, rock, even a little world.

Well, you could call it that. I prefer to call it Spanish-influenced melodies.

Tell me how you came to write the title track.

I always liked the first solo album. It was a bit of a landmark being my first solo album. So I thought I’d write a song about still being on the road to freedom. And I go back and see the same guy there 40 years ago. It’s the same rhythm as the original song. That’s the main connection really. And of course, freedom, as I said earlier. I mean, freedom is a very relative thing — it depends of where your situation is in life. We’re always searching freedom, but it’s not always the same freedom you’re searching for.

Song of the Red Rock Mountain” is a Spanish-influenced instrumental you made up on the spot while testing a microphone. I assume you were also playing your guitar at the time.

That’s the one I was talking about when you said “world music.” I was in the studio, waiting for my tech to come around and I’d bought a new microphone. So I just plugged it in and thought I’d check it out. I started to play anything that came to my mind, and that beautiful little song came up. I like it when that happens. We just put it down in around 10 minutes, wondering, “Where did that come from?” And it’s not premeditated. Sometimes it’s like you grab it out of the ether. You just reach up and, “Oh, there’s a song. Let’s pull that one down.”

You have “Love Like A Man 2,” a remake of “Love like A Man,” which you recorded with Ten Years After on the band’s 1970 album Cricklewood Green. What prompted you to redo that one?

I was just toying around with this cool rhythm, kind of an R&B rhythm, an oldie, along the lines of Smiley Lewis, “I Hear You Knocking.” And I thinking I like this rhythm, what can I put to it. And that just kind of came up. I didn’t think much of it at first actually, but as I worked on it, it got better. So it’s on the album.

Going back to 1973, On The Road To Freedom certainly showed a different side of the Alvin Lee people knew with Ten Years After. Was that your intention?

Yeah, absolutely, that was 100 percent my intention. I needed to make a change and get away from what I thought at the time was us repeating ourselves over and over again. It’s funny because even the lady who runs my website, she’s a big fan. When she first got On The Road To Freedom, she gave it away because she was expecting something like Ten Years After. Quite a few people felt like that, but strangely enough over the years that particular album has probably sold more than any of the other ones. It’s a long seller (laughs).

And you had Mylon LeFevre on it. Do you still talk to him?

I do, yeah. He’s actually a minister who runs a ministry out of Texas now. He’s just written a book, which includes some of the wild times we had.

Did you ask him to be on the new record?

I thought about it, but he’s living an entirely different life. He doesn’t actually sing anymore. He’s dedicated himself to this church.

How about some of the other people who appeared on the original? Mick Fleetwood? Ron Wood?

No, there wasn’t a plan to do that. It probably would have been a good idea, but it was never my intention to make another On The Road To Freedom. Just kind of nodding to the original On The Road To Freedom and saying I’m still on it. It’s all different stuff. It’s not supposed to be the same as On The Road To Freedom. It’s free music for the soul.

I read you actually got to know George Harrison when Mylon brought him to your house to make the record.

I’d met George before. We’d met quite a few times and had a few jam sessions. But him being a famous Beatle and me being a bit shy, I would never have dreamed of asking him to come and play on an album. It would have been a bit cheeky, really. He’s got millions of fans. But Mylon didn’t mind (laughs). He went over and said, “Oh George, we want you to play on the album.” Of course, George was a musician and he didn’t think twice about it. So he came.

The funny story is about the song “So Sad,” which George wrote. Mylon said to George, “I’d really like to do one of your songs on this album.” And George said, “Well, I’ve done thousands of songs. I have the Beatles songs and songs on my solo albums you could do.” And Mylon, very cleverly, said, “George, you played them so well. I need to do one you haven’t done yet.” And George said, “I’ve got this one song I’ve been working on, which I think might be a hit.” And Mylon said, “I’ll take it!” (laughs)

That night, I finished building the studio and actually, I was a bit late with that. I had the whole band down and I had them all putting up acoustic panels in the studio to finish it off. When we finally finished, Mylon, “Well, where do all the musicians hang out?” And I said, “Speakeasy.” So he put his zoot suit on and went down to Speakeasy and came back three hours later and said, “I got us a band, man.”

You obviously struck a chord with George because you two recorded several songs together. Do you have a favorite you did with him?

Yeah, “The Bluest Blues.” The first guitar solo is George and it’s really beautiful‛&one of the best slide guitar solos I’ve ever heard. I said, “I got this one that needs a bit slide on it George.” and he said, “I’ll be right over.” And he played this beautiful, melodic solo. George doesn’t jam like me. I’m a jammer, I fire from the hip. But George writes a song when he does a solo, he writes a tune that becomes the solo. So he had this beautiful melody and a really nice touch. It kind of put me on the spot because I had to come up with something to match it. I think I did pretty good.

Back in the day, you were often cited as one of the fastest guitar player around. Most definitely up there with Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Do you hear your influence in any of the guitarists that have come along since then? ;

Yeah, quite a bit actually‛&the odd licks. That’s a compliment in a way. I don’t mind that at all.

You listen to someone like Eddie Van Halen, and you think he must have been listening to Alvin Lee.

I don’t know who he was listening to (laughs). When I first heard Eddie Van Halen, he was the one responsible for getting me to start practicing again. I first heard Eddie do a solo, and I thought, “Whoa‛&I better get my guitar out and start practicing.”

You have a song on the new record called “Back in ’69,” and I wanted to ask you about a particular Sunday in 1969 when you played this gig in upstate New York.

Where’s that?

This little gig called Woodstock.

Yeah, that was a nice little gig..

I understand you had technical problems, but when it came to “I’m Going Home,” everything sort of fell in place and they were able to film the performance.

That’s right. We just went right on after the rain storm. There was a lot of humidity in the air and all the guitars went madly out of tune and we actually had to stop. The song was “Good Mornin’ Little School Girl” and I had to stop it and say, “Sorry‛&excuse me‛&I want to get us in tune here.” At that point, it was looking like a disaster. But as you see from the movie, we manage to get back on course.

Did you have any idea that that would be a game changer for you?

Well, nothing happened for a year. We continued to play the Fillmore and the Boston Tea Party‛&two to three-thousand seaters. It wasn’t until the movie came out that suddenly we found ourselves playing Houston Coliseums and Madison Square Gardens.

I was watching the Blu-ray last night and relived your Woodstock performance. And when you’re done, you pick up a watermelon. Where on earth did that watermelon come from?

It just sort of rolled on. I didn’t see where it came from. It just rolled onto the stage. I don’t know why or what was going through my mind. I just casually threw my guitar into the drum kit and picked up this watermelon (laughs). At all the gigs after the movie came out — we were playing big festivals and stuff like that — and (during) the last number, about 200 watermelons were all bobbing away in the audience. And by the end of the last number, the whole stage is covered in watermelon (laughs).

You obviously had great success with Ten Years After, and have played off and on with the other guys over the years. Do you foresee a time when you might play with them again?

It’s not really likely. We tried it a few times. And it usually ended in — what shall I say — discontent (laughs). We put the band together again in 1990 and did a world tour, and we’ve done it two or three times since then. It’s a bit like going on tour with four ex-wives. It’s great at first, but then you have one little bitch and then everyone’s going, “There you go again. This is the trouble with you.” All the baggage comes out, you know.

Outside of Ten Years After, you have played with some of the greatest musicians on the planet. There were all the guys on your first album — Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Boz Burrell, Ron Wood, and George Harrison. And then in 2004, you got together with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana (members of Elvis Presley’s original backing band) and made Alvin Lee in Tennessee. That must have been a great experience.

It was fantastic. Scotty and D.J. were playing in London, promoting a new album or something. Every guitarist I know got invites. Gary Moore was there. We had a jam session and I was first up. I did this medley of Elvis hits. It was great fun. I went back to being like 14, 15-years-old when I was listening to those records. Suddenly, there was those guys playing behind me and it gave me such a buzz. I said, “Is there any chance I can get you guys in the studio and make an album?” And they said, “Yeah, sure.”

So I went off and wrote some appropriate songs. I called up Scotty and said, “I’ve got some songs ready — and where would you like to record?” And he said, “Well, we’ll record at my place,” which was fantastic. I couldn’t have wished anything more. He has a house with a built-in studio. Actually, it’s a studio with an adjoining kitchen and bedroom. He’s got all his Elvis memorabilia there and all his great guitars. I was like a kid in a sweet shop.

Did they tell you any secrets about Elvis? Tell you any good stories?

Oh yeah. There were a lot of great stories.

You guys did “I’m Going Home,” which is really fantastic. How did you like revisiting that one?

That was fun. Pete (Pritchard) the bass player‛&it wasn’t on the plan, but Pete said, “Let’s do 'Going Home,' it'll be great.” And I said, “Ok, we’ll give it a shot.” And we played it once, and it was fantastic. D.J. Fontana might not be the cleverest drummer, he might not be doing all the drum fills, but he’s got such a rhythm going. He’s like a train behind you. He just pushes you along. Not too fast, not too slow. He’s got the beat, he’s got the pocket.

So getting back to you Still On The Road To Freedom, do you have any plans to play some shows or do a tour behind it?

I’m hoping to. There’s no plans as such yet. I don’t actually tour anymore in the old sense of like doing 12 weeks on the road. I’m more likely to show up at the odd festival. That’s the kind of thing I like to do. There’s always a good chance of that. I like to do open air festivals these days. It’s just a nice vibe to look up and see the sky. It’s much better than being inside. You don’t have the acoustics to battle against.

When was the last time you played here in the States?

That would be 1999. It would have been the Woodstock anniversary gig at Bethel Woods.

“I’d Love To Change The World” has a certain relevance in these trying times.

Always. It’s never lost its relevance actually. It’s harder to change it. Every year, it gets harder and harder.

Would you still love to change the world?

Well, that’s the point of the song: I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do and I’ll leave it up to you. I’m just saying the world does need changing. I’d love to do it, but I haven’t got the talent. I don’t think I’m a world changer (laughs).

Musoscribe with Bill Kopp
Off the Road Yet On the Road: A Talk with Alvin Lee,

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: There's always been a strong early rock 'nroll/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.

Bill Kopp: The title and cover art of your new album Still On the Road to Freedom overtly reference your 1973 collaboration with Mylon LeFevre. Beyond the text and visuals, what is the connection between the two records?

Alvin Lee: There's not really a connection. The only connection is that in 1972 I wrote the words to "On the Road to Freedom," and what I'm saying now is that I’m still on that road. I still haven't got there. There’s only that one song that's relevant [to the old record]. The rest of the album is new music, the sort of things that comes out as my music today. I'm not trying to do a sequel, a follow-up.

BK: If someone asked me to describe the music on Still On the Road to Freedom by applying a single genre label to it, I couldn't do it. There's country rock, blues, Bo Diddley style rock, quiet acoustic numbers, on and on. Do you think that - in an ironic way - that the end of the record industry as we used to know it has meant that artists are free to follow their muse where it takes them, rather than being expected (or required) to turn in twelve songs in a single style?

AL: It's a nice thought, but actually no. To get that freedom- and I went for it in 1973 - I was giving up a lot. I was giving up the road to fame and fortune. The road to freedom was for my health, anyway.

But record companies today, if you sign with a big record company, they practically own the artist. They tell them where to go, what TV [shows] to do. It's actually worse than it's ever been. But of course there are more bands playing on a smaller level. They have record companies that will pretty much put something out if they like it. They're not dealing in hits any more. And they're not spending $200,000 on promotion.

So, yes and no. There is more freedom for bands to record; it's something I've always fought for. The record company comes and says, "We want an album that's the same as the last one," and I say, "Tough. I'm gonna send you one that I like. And I hope you like it. If not, don't release it."

BK: When I was a kid, I often heard the label "fastest guitar in the west" applied to you. I don't remember now where I heard that. But while you don't always do so, you can play really fast, like on the new track "Back in '69." Back in the day, do you think that there was an expectation - when people came to see and hear you with Ten Years After - that you'd have to play like that? To show just that one side of your talent, the flash side?

AL: To a degree, that was a part of the freedom I was searching for, too. They used to call me Captain Speedfingers, too; I didn't take all that seriously. There were and are many faster guitarists than me. People like John McLaughlin and Django Reinhardt: unbelievably nimble. But with me, I think it's because of the way I play. Light and shade. I'll play it cool, and then I'll hit some rocket riffs. And that makes the rocket riffs sound more effective.

I've been to see some great guitarists - I won't mention any names - who clearly must practice twelve hours a day. But after ten minutes, you've heard everything they've got.

BK: On Saguitar you played most of the instruments yourself. On this latest, you still do a lot of the work, but you have brought in players for most tracks. How do you think that changed the nature of the music?

AL: I think the new one has a more realistic feel. On Saguitar, I was "concocting" a real feel. I used computer drums and did play most of the instruments myself. I have always had a fascination with Les Paul, the way he used to overdub his guitar fifty times. So it was partly that: trying to see how real a sound I could get by myself, making it on the computer. And I think it was pretty good; I spent a lot of time and effort to get the right feel, to capture that interplay of the various instruments. On the new album I've got Pete Pritchard on the bass, and Richard Newman on drums. So it's got more of a live feel to it.

BK: Are there any plans at all for some North American dates in support of Still On the Road to Freedom?

AL: None planned as of yet, but I'll play anywhere someone wants me. It's hard, though. You''ve got to get visas, air tickets. It's a big deal. You can't just pop over and do one gig. That's what I do in Europe, though: I do a festival on a Saturday night - or any night, basically - and keep my hand in that way. But those tours of five or six nights a week, I'm not up for that any more. It kills off the fun of making music. Touring with a rock 'n' roll band becomes boring, and then you've got a big problem on your hands. I never really wanted to be a rock star...

...Actually, I don't want to lie. When I was really young, I wanted to be a big star and make lots of money. But it seems that the reality doesn't ever quite match up to the dream. Once you get there, it's not just about having fun. It's a lot of responsibility, and a lot of pressure. That builds up on you, and sometimes you turn to drink and drugs. And those don’t make things any easier.

BK: Your discography notes that you "do not play with the band currently recording as Ten Years After." Is this one of those situations where ownership of the band name is contested, or is it something else, something more cordial?

AL: Well, it could have been cordial. But I was really not happy with what they did. It was behind my back, and all very sneaky. But those guys spent as much time on the road all those years ago as I did, so they have some right to do it. I just wish they had called it something else, like Ten Years After II, or something like that.

BK: Maybe Forty Years After…

AL: I think that's what it is now, isn't it?!

Guitar Afficianado
August 20th, 2012
By Damian Fanelli

From a guitarist's perspective, the 1970 Woodstock film, which documents the highs and lows of the August 1969 Woodstock Festival, has several highlights.

There's Jimi Hendrix's immortal take on "The Star-Spangled Banner"; a lengthy, mind-blowing performance by newcomers Santana; and Pete Townshend's high-flying Gibson SG acrobatics with The Who, to name just a few.

But for a full-on blues-rocking experience, there's no beating Ten Years After's adrenaline-fueled reading of "I'm Going Home." The performance, an intense nod to vintage blues and '50s rock and roll, featured the lightning-fast fretwork of Ten Years After frontman Alvin Lee.

"The solo on the movie sounds pretty rough to me these days," Lee told Guitar Aficionado late last week. "But it had the energy, and that was what Ten Years After were all about at the time."

The performance made stars out of the British band, which led to more festivals, a label change and their biggest hit, 1971's "I'd Love to Change the World." Although the band still tours, they do it without Lee, who has found happiness as a solo artist, carefully choosing a handful of festival performances per year.

Lee is releasing a new studio album, Still On the Road to Freedom, August 27 via Rainman Records. The title is a reference to his 1973 album with Mylon LeFevre, On the Road to Freedom.

Lee recently took some time to discuss his new album and his gear over the years, including his famous Woodstock-era "Big Red" ES-335.

GUITAR AFICIONADO: How often do you pick up a guitar and play these days?

Pretty much every day. I write and record all the time; it's my hobby and my passion. I have a Spanish gut-strung guitar, a Dobro resonator and a Line 6 Variax hanging on the wall, and they all get played regularly. The new Variax is very impressive.

Your new album covers a lot of ground, revisiting the past, looking to the future and offering a myriad of different sounds. Was that intentional?

It kind of evolved from luck and circumstance, as if it were trying to get out on its own. I originally had 33 songs to choose from. As they developed and evolved, I picked out the ones that showed the most promise. As I continued to work on them, I realized they pretty much went through most of my musical influences and styles over the years, so from then on it became a time-warp concept.

What gear did you use on the new album?

Mainly a Gibbo [Gibson] ES-335 and a Martin acoustic. I used a Wal bass and a Gretch baritone guitar for bass, as well as Pete Pritchard's Music Man and a doghouse double bass called Charlie Boy.

Amp-wise, I used a Wem 15 Dominator and a very old Yamaha I bought from Mick Abrahams. I also used the original Pod, which is better than the new ones, as a pre-amp into a Fender Champ and Mustang. Plus Guitar Rig and Amplitude and too many others to mention.

On "Listen to Your Radio Station," I used the Metalizer pedal Leslie West gave me. It's quite radical and has to be tamed, as the slightest finger twitch comes blasting through the amp. Leslie came up to me at the Night of the Guitars sound check and said, "Alvin, you're a damn fine guitarist, but you're not loud enough." He then proceeded to give me loudness lessons. I like Leslie's playing. He has excellent rock and roll phrasing.

What is some of your more prized gear, the things you’'d rush to save from a fire, for instance?

My Martin acoustic. I bought it in New York in 1970, and the guy gave me a receipt for $150 for the customs. I walked into the "something to declare" channel and showed the guy the receipt. He opened the case and said, "A Martin guitar with Grover machine heads for $150?" I had only found the musical instrument expert customs man.

Four hours later, I walked out with my Martin having paid a fine, a penalty and having had to buy it back. Ever since then, I’'ve used the "nothing to declare" channel.

On the album opener, the title track, you can immediately tell it’'s Alvin Lee on guitar - not just because of your note choices but also your sound. How would you say your sound has evolved over the years? Are you still using that Woodstock ES-335?

I've still got the original Woodstock 335, but, sadly, I don't use it these days as it has become too valuable. She's now in a vault since some loony offered me half a million dollars for her.

Sound-wise, I never use pedal effects on stage and seldom in the studio. I prefer to get my overload sustain from having the Marshall cranked up high, then by turning the guitar down to 5 or 6, you get a nice clean jazz sound. The crunch comes in around 7 or 8. What else do you need?

How involved were you in the creation of Gibson's Custom "Big Red" Alvin Lee ES-335?

That all came about because of Pat Foley at Gibson. He asked me if I’d be interested, and I said of course, it’s a great compliment. So he came over to England to photograph and measure Big Red, and Gibson pretty much took it from there. I had no involvement until I got the first prototype. Then I made a few changes, which resulted in my getting several more prototypes. Now I’ve got a whole bunch of them — a gaggle of Gibsons.

Who were your favorite guitarists when you were growing up?

My favorite country blues player was Big Bill Broonzy. City blues was Freddie King, but I liked them all — Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ralph Willis, Lonnie Johnson, Brownie McGhee and the three Kings, B.B., Albert and Freddie. Jazz-wise, I listened to Django, Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery. Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman’s guitarist, was a great influence on my swing phrasing.

My all-time favorite rock and roll players were Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry and Franny Beecher, and I listened to the country playing of Merle Travis.

Did you admire the other great fast bluesman of the time, Johnny Winter?

Strangely enough, I wasn't into fast guitarists. I preferred Peter Green's subtle touch. I saw him with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers at the Marquee Club in London and was very impressed. He was the only guitarist I've ever seen to turn the volume control on his guitar down during a solo.

What kind of delay/reverb, amp and overdrive did you use on the solo on "I'd Love to Change the World"?

As far as I remember, it was a Wem Dominator used as a pre-amp into the old Marshalls. I had the Wem 15-Watt power amp padded down to guitar input level. The echo was an EMT plate.

The first time I saw the Woodstock film, I was completely knocked out by Ten Years After's performance of "I'Going Home."I remember thinking I'd never seen a blues/rock guitarist play that fast before, at least in the context of 1969. And then there was the intensity of the band. It was a bit chaotic yet completely hemmed in by a rock-solid beat. Where did that come from?

You’re obviously a man of very good taste! Seriously, though, I never really tried to play fast. It kind of developed from the adrenalin rush of the hundreds of gigs I did long before Woodstock. They called me "Captain Speedfingers" and such, but I didn't take it seriously. There were many guitarists faster than me - Django, Barney Kessel, John McLaughlin and Joe Pass to name a few.

The solo on the movie sounds pretty rough to me these days, but it had the energy, and that was what Ten Years After were all about at the time. However, I often wonder what would have happened if they had used "ICant Keep From Crying" in the movie instead of" I'm Going Home."

Anything else you'd like to add?

Rush out and buy Still On the Road to Freedom!

Huffngton Post

A Conversation With Alvin Lee

Mike Ragogna: Hello Mr. Alvin Lee, guitar god from Ten Years After and your own solo career. You've got a new album, Still On the Road to Freedom, the title being a play off of one of your classic albums. But first, how're you?

Alvin Lee: I'm fine. How are you?

MR: Dandy. And no, you're not part of Canned Heat. (laughs)

AL: No, but that's okay, they're a great band. We used to play with them in the early sixties in Golden Gate Park, and they came to England and they were good buddies of mine.

MR: Right. Remember any of those old shows?

AL: I can remember Golden Gate Park because it was a free concert. It was really cool in the height of the sixties and all that. I went back to The Bear's house one time and he had this great collection of '78 records and we spent the whole evening listening to the John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy and the likes. I really got along well with those guys. I stayed in touch with Fito the drummer. He is one of the best shuffle drummers in the business.

MR: Alvin, who are some of your heroes, the people who inspired you?

AL: I was really lucky, my dad was an early inspiration. He was an avid music collector of ethnic music. He had things like an album called Murderous Home, which was prison work songs. He also brought Bill Broonzy back to the house one time after he played a gig in Nottingham. Big Bill was a big influence on me. Once when I was 12 years old, I sold my clarinet and bought a guitar the next day. Big Bill, Ralph Lewis, Lonnie Johnson, Ledbelly, Muddy Waters, Brownie McGhee, Freddy King...I liked all those guys. I also liked the jazz side of Johnny Christian, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Django (Reinhardt). And, of course, rock 'n' roll. Scotty Moore is my big favorite. Chuck Berry. Also, a bit of country I used to listen to like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. They were all influences. There are probably a lot of others, really. I've played a little classical, too. Segovia, as well. All around influences.

MR: When you're playing live or recording new projects, do you ever find yourself whipping out a classical guitar or doing more jazz?

AL: I do little vignettes of it between the numbers. I play a little bit of "Cry Me A River" and country ho-down thing, like a Merle Travis kind of thing. I just kind of throw those in for fun. I don't actually do any jazz songs as such in the sense that I keep nodding my head and playing intro bits like that. (laughs)

MR: Let's talk about the new album, Still on the Road to Freedom. In order to have context, is it best to talk a tiny bit about the original, On the Road to Freedom?

AL: It's not as much a sequel. It's a new album. The word "freedom" came out of the one song. I wrote that one song, "Still on the Road to Freedom," so that became the theme for the album, and then I thought it would be cool to have a cover that looks a bit like the original and let people know I'm still on the road to freedom. It's always been something I've been searching for--freedom. It's a very relative thing. It means different things to different people. Musical freedom has always been very strong for me, something to strive for, to be able to play the music you enjoy playing rather than playing music that other people want to hear, which I find rather shallow and unrewarding. So I make albums I like and I put them out and hope other people like them and that's a kind of freedom in itself.

MR: Given you're talking to me at KRUU, the Midwest's only solar-powered radio station--had to throw that in--I especially like "Listen to Your Radio Station." (laughs)

AL: Thought you might like that one. "It's the coolest music across the nation, all good stuff and all for free, it must be cool if they're playing me." It's something I have a feeling on. These days, lots of people have iPods and tend to be listening to their favorite music but it's the same music over and over again. I strongly encourage listening to the radio to hear something you haven't heard before. It's a very healthy thing to do. It's strange, unless you reload your iPods every couple of weeks, you're listening to and recycling the same music all of the time. I'm serious. Listen to your radio station. One thing that does annoy me with radio stations, I hear something and think, "Oh this is good, who is this?" And I wait for the end of the record, they give the station ID and the time. I know that, but they don't tell me who the artist is. I find that quite annoying.

MR: At our radio station, we do announce, plus you can see all of the titles online.

AL: God bless the digital age. Must be a cool radio station.

MR: Indeed, sir! Let's get the story on "Song of the Red Rock Mountain," like what inspired you to write it?

AL: I'm actually getting good feedback on that one. It's off the wall. It's not rock 'n' roll by any means; it has a Spanish flavor. Strangely enough, I was sitting in the studio waiting for my tech to come and I had to sort out some wiring or something, so I thought to test this new microphone. I stuck the microphone up, picked up my Martin guitar and, basically, it practically came out instantly. I got that little rhythm going and the very simple tune. "That was quite nice," I thought. Then I thought maybe I'd go back to it and try to do it properly. I went back to it about twenty times and it never got better than that first time. It's one of those magic moments.

MR: Where does your creativity come from?

AL: I don't know. That's the beauty of creativity. It comes from the ether. I like to think, sometimes, it's like I haven't written it, it's more like I just reached up and grabbed it from somewhere. That song, "Song of the Red Rock Mountain," is one of them. I recorded it and thought, "Where did that come from?"

MR: And there's "Back in '69."

AL: "Back in '69" was kind of a Bo Diddley rhythm I had that worked out with the band as a backing track. I wasn't happy with the words, they were too ordinary. It was like, "My baby been done left me and left me waiting at the station." So I looked through my book of poems and that actually was a poem I wrote just to fit the song perfectly, back in '69.

MR: Now for those Ten Years After stories.

AL: It was great. The sixties were a great period. I love the early days of Ten Years After playing around the clubs in London. I remember we first came to America, it was about 1968. We visited Haight-Ashbury and everywhere. I was actually really into America. I loved James Dean and American cars and American music, so I was really thrilled to get there. Great memories up until, strangely enough... A lot of people say the Woodstock movie made Ten Years After. But actually, it was the beginning of the end for me because we stopped playing clubs like The Fillmore East and The Fillmore West, The Grande Ballroom and The Boston Tea Party, those really cool, kind of rock 'n' roll gigs with two or three-thousand people. After the movie came out--not after the concert but after the movie came out--suddenly, we were catapulted to Madison Square Garden, Sam Houston Coliseum and hockey arenas, the worst places to play in the world. They were just dreadful places to play. The fun came out of it for me there, and I realized I didn't want to be a rock star, I wanted to be a working musician. So that's one of the roads to freedom I took right there and then.

MR: Nicely said.

AL: At first, it was great. The band went for eight years, and it was a great band and I really enjoyed it. But there comes a time to move on and do other things.

MR: One other part of your history is that you were in The Jaybirds, of course. The Jaybirds were in that same circuit The Beatles were in.

AL: We played The Star Club in Hamburg. That was quite a trip. I just turned 17 years old and found myself in the land of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, prostitutes, and gangsters. It was a crash course in rock 'n' roll, I'll tell ya.

MR: Has much changed since then?

AL: In Hamburg? Well, a lot actually. They have different prostitutes and gangsters, but they're all still there.

MR: Let's get back to your solo career. You've had a few solo albums and some wonderful guests on those projects such as George Harrison. You guys were pals?

AL: Yes, George was a good friend. I was a very lucky guy. I knew him and I used to hang out with George quite a lot. We were very good after hours friends, you know. He would make serious music and I'd make serious music and when all those guys had gone home, we'd get together and just have fun playing nonsense and playing whatever we felt like. He had his studio all set up with all of this amazing gear and equipment. We'd go in and try to get it working and have a lot of fun. (laughs) George was a musician; he liked to play, just like anybody. So one time, I asked, "Any chance of a slide guitar on this song?" He said, "I'll be right over."

MR: Nice.

AL: Good man.

MR: One of your more beloved tracks is "The Bluest Blues," that a popular reviewer called, "The most perfect blues song ever recorded."

AL: That's very nice. I kind of think B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone" is a little ahead of that, but I appreciate the gesture.

MR: There's your project Alvin Lee in Tennessee from back in 2004. How did it come about?

AL: Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana came out over to England. They were playing a launching of an album gig at Air Studios in London. They invited me to come down and have a jam, and I wasn't going to miss that one because Scotty is the boy for me. I got up there, I did a rock 'n' roll medley, "Blue Suede Shoes," "Rip it Up" and "Hound Dog." It was just great. What particularly thilled me was D.J. Fontana playing behind me. I turned around and I said, "Let's start with 'Rip It Up,'" and they all sat there. And I said, "C'mon, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch..." D.J. said, "Oh, yeah!" and he started playing that intro. That's because D.J. started it! It was great just hearing that music, those drum fills and those rhythms that I cut my teeth on all those years ago, and there I was playing with these guys. Afterwards, I said, "Any chance to get you guys in a studio to make an album together?" They said, "Yeah, love to." So I shot off and started writing songs for that project.

MR: I think I have a sense of what the word "freedom" means to you. It's the freedom to express yourself creatively, isn't it.

AL: That's right. Yes, that pretty much pours it in the bucket.

MR: Alvin, what information or advice might you have for new artists?

AL: New artists? Actually, these days, my advice is to throw away your PlayStation and pick up an instrument. I'm a bit of a PlayStation junkie myself, but had I had a PlayStation or a computer as a teenager, I probably would have never played guitar. If you put the time into playing an instrument that you put into playing on your PlayStation, you could be playing in a band within a year, and that, it seems to me, is a much better way to go.

MR: That's wonderful advice. The same might be applied to spending time on Facebook?

AL: Yes, absolutely. And surfing the old net and all that. There are many things like that these days. I was lucky when I was younger. There were only records, that was it. Records and films were the only thing. Records were so big. You'd buy a record, you'd go home, you'd treasure it and play it again and again. It's kind of a bit sad these days that it's almost like a disposable thing. My advice is lock up your PlayStation and pick up your guitar.

MR: People seem to be moving from thing to thing so quickly, maybe searching for that instant gratification.

AL: Yeah, it's getting faster and faster, isn't it?

MR: Yeah, no savoring. Some last words on your new album. It basically was recorded with Pete Pritchard and Richard Newman.

AL: Yes, and I have Tim Hinkley on keyboards. He's been with me for many years. He was on the original On Road to Freedom album and with me on my second In Flight album. He is one of my favorite keyboard players. He's in Nashville now. He came over from Nashville to play on the album, which was pretty cool.

MR: The way you recorded Still on the Road to Freedom, was it you all playing together with just a little overdubbing later?

AL: Some of it was that. Some of it was just me and Richard on the drums. On some of the songs, I find it great just to play with the drummer because then you can change the chords as you go. You can stick in a chorus when you feel one is due and stuff like that. So I did quite a lot, just about half, with just the drums and me, and had Pete put the bass in afterwards. But some of the more rock-y ones, they were pretty much live.

MR: You'll be touring, right?

AL: Yep. Hopefully. I'll play anywhere that will have me. I won't be doing any 10-week tours these days. I love to play, but I'm just not into that mad kind of traveling anymore. I've done a few million miles already.

MR: Alvin, you are a guitar hero to many, many people. Are you aware of that?

AL: Well, kind of. I don't necessarily believe it. I've got my heroes and other people have their heroes. I consider myself a pretty cool guitarist but not really anything especially brilliant. But that's not for me to say. If other people like it, that's great, and I thank them very much.

MR: Beautifully said. Alvin, thank you so much for the time, this was special.

AL: Thank you very much, Mike, I enjoyed it. Keep on pumping those watts.

Interview: Alvin Lee talks about his new album, Ten Years After, and how he’d still love to change the world

At age 67, guitarist Alvin Lee still has faster fingers than a pickpocket. For an example of Lee’s dexterity, listen to the title track of his new album, Still on the Road to Freedom. Over the space of four minutes, the guitarist’s fingers hopscotch across the fretboard for several exciting, blues-based solos in which he shows off his formidable technique of stinging vibrato, wailing bends, and nimble pull-ons and pull-offs.

But then, Lee always was a fleet-fingered fellow. When the Nottingham-born guitarist founded Ten Years After during the British Blues Boom of the mid 1960s, his virtuosity was remarked on even back then. Yet, when modern rock writers recall that halcyon era, they sometimes neglect to mention Lee’s name alongside the likes of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Peter Green. The sleeve notes to Still on the Road to Freedom offer one possible explanation for why that is. “In 1972 after Woodstock had catapulted Ten Years After into the Rock Arenas, I decided to take the road to freedom rather than the road to fame and fortune,” writes Lee.

It was a courageous move. Between 1968 and 1974, the blues-rock band released popular albums such as Undead, Stonedhenge and Cricklewood Green and scored hits such as “I’d Love to Change the World,” “Hear Me Calling,” “Love Like a Man,” and I’m Going Home” (the latter immortalized during the band’s star-making performance at Woodstock). But Lee was less than enamored by record company pressures and the more pop-oriented direction the band was pursuing. In 1973, Lee stepped away from his day job to collaborate with southern gospel singer Mylon LeFevre for a country-rock record On the Road to Freedom, an album that featured guest players such as George Harrison, Ron Wood, Mick Fleetwood, Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood. On the Road to Freedom heralded the end for Ten Years After, though the band did release Positive Vibrations in 1974 and, later, during one of its handful of short-lived reunions with Lee, it attempted a comeback album in 1989 titled About Time. (Since 2003, the remainder of Ten Years After has continued to record and tour without Lee.)

Following his tenure in Ten Years After, Alvin Lee has released over 20 albums, most notably Zoom, I Hear You Rockin’ (a.k.a. 1994) and Alvin Lee live in Tennessee, a 2004 recording that included a guest appearance by Scotty Moore, the guitarist whose work with Elvis Presley inspired Lee to become a musician. (Ten Years After was established in 1966, a decade after Elvis’s breakthrough—hence the band’s name.)

Still on the Road to Freedom, released August 28, isn’t exactly a sequel to On the Road to Freedom. Though the album touches on that album’s country blues on “Save My Stuff,” the new record’s 11 tracks are truly diverse and reflect Lee’s wide-ranging musical interests. It spans from the flamenco-tinged instrumental “Song of the Red Rock Mountain,” to the traditional ’50s rock ’n’ roll of “I’m a Lucky Man,” to the funk of “Rock You,” to the 21st century techno-blues of “Listen to Your Radio Station.” Much of the album will appeal to fans of Mark Knopfler and J.J. Cale. On songs such as “Midnight Creeper” and “Nice and Easy,” Lee’s sweet-twang guitar sashays gently to the shuffling grooves of bassist Pete Pritchard and drummer Richard Newman. Still on the Road to Freedom also includes a vibrant remake of Ten Years After’s “Love Like a Man,” during which Lee plays several fluid guitar solos that will leave listeners foaming at the mouth.

In the sleeve notes, Lee accounts for the record’s diversity by explaining that he had 33 songs to choose from. “I am never sure which direction my music is going to take,” writes Lee, “but I do know that to be worthwhile it has to be a natural progression. It has to evolve freely. For me it has to be instinctual and not commercially premeditated.”

Rock Square contacted the guitarist via email to ask him about Still on the Road to Freedom, his career with Ten Years After, and how he’d love to change the world by bringing back the values of 1969.

Still on the Road to Freedom is striking for its wide stylistic diversityhow did the record shape up that way?

As the 33 songs I had written developed and evolved, I picked out the ones that showed the most promise. As I continued to work on them, I realized that they pretty much went through most of my musical influences and styles over the years.

So the time warp concept just appeared out of the blue with no premeditated plan.

Still on the Road to Freedom is a very disciplined record in that it clocks in at 42 minutesalmost vinyl lengthrather than the sprawling length of 80 minutes of so many CD albums. Given that you had 33 songs written, was it difficult to stick to the discipline of releasing a succinct album rather than cramming as many of those 33 songs onto a CD?

For me the CD has a beginning a middle and two ends and works as an entity from start to finish. I never even timed it until it was finished, it just seemed the right length. Guess I was born to make vinyls.

Elvis and early rock ‘n’ roll was such a big inspiration for you. Both “I’m a Lucky Man” and “Down Line Rock” revisit that soundwho were the guitarists who most influenced you early on and which of today’s players do you most admire?

Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ralph Willis, Lonnie Johnson, Brownie McGhee and the three Kings—B.B., Albert and Freddy. Jazz wise, I listened to Django Rheinhardt, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, and Wes Montgomery and a bit of Segovia’s classical and Juan Serrano’s Flamenco on the side. I listened to the country playing of Merle Travis and Shit Hotkins [Chet Atkins], and for Rock and Roll it was Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry and Franny Beecher.

These days I like to listen to J.J. Cale, the king of laid back, and Mark Knopfler—he has a unique style. Tommy Emmanuel, who has obviously been practicing far too much and there’s a new guy Jeff Aitchison, who is doing amazing things on the acoustic guitar. Stanley Jordan deserves a mention, he has an amazing style which is more related to keyboards than guitar and I also like George Benson’s jazz work, but not the muzak for swinging secretaries. Check out Billie’s Bounce with Billy Cobham on drums and Herbie Hancock on piano.

“Listen to Your Radio Station” has a surprisingly contemporary edge with its drum loop sample by the late, great King Crimson drummer Ian Wallacewhere did you find that loop and did the song evolve out it?

This is a kind of cross between blues and hip hop. Blues-hop or Hip Blues if you will.

The original recording was done to a click track, and I later found Ian’s drum rhythm which fitted perfectly. Myself, Ian Wallace, Boz Burrell ,Tim Hinkley and Mel Collins had a jamming band we called “The Gits.” This was from one of the many jams we did between ’71 & ’75

The album was recorded in Spainis that why the improvised “Song of the Red Rock Mountain” has that Latin classical guitar sound to it?

That tune is another one that just came out of the blue. It has a Flamenco leaning as I have been studying Flamenco guitar.

“Nice and Easy” has a laid-back, J.J. Cale sort of shuffle to it was Cale an overt influence on the song?

Yes, I was definitely in Bradley’s Barn mode when I recorded this.

What’s the lyrical message of “Back in 69” about?

What happened to Peace & Love?

You’ve roped in the great keyboardist Tim Hinkley on the album. What makes him your go-to guy for keyboards since the early 1970s?

He is the best, he has the right feel for me and he does not play too many notes. It’s all about understanding the groove and he understands and understates.

What inspired you to re-record “Love Like a Man” for this album?

I liked the rhythm and the song fitted, just jumped out of my head.

Are there other Ten Years After songs you look back on and wish you could re-record them with today’s recording techniques and production?

I haven’t really thought about it but it’s a definite maybe for the future. “Working on the Road” springs to mind. I’ve always liked the line, “I’ve seen the world and it’s seen me/ In a strange kind of way I guess I’m free.”

In the liner notes, you wrote that you “decided to take the road to freedom rather than the road to fame and fortune.” Have you encountered any bumps in your journey down the road?

There are many bumps holes, forks and snakes on the road to freedom but freedom is a relative thing and it means different things to different people depending on the circumstances. Think of your own form of freedom and how to achieve it, and you will find there are a lot of sacrifices to make which are not easy. But it’s worth it if you follow your instincts and find the flow.

When you parted ways with Ten Years After almost a decade ago, was that because of your journey down that roadand what’s your assessment of the band’s legacy?

I actually parted with TYA in 1975. There were a few reformation gigs which did not add up to much. Any legacy that exists for me, is on the recordings between 1967 and the release of the Woodstock movie in 1970. After that the spark was lost when it all got too corporate and commercial.

To the best of my knowledge, Ten Years After never performed its biggest hit, “I’d Love to Change the World,” in concert. Why was that?

It’s a great recording but it’s no fun to play live, it’s too restricting. Duplicating songs live has never been something I wanted to do.

There are songs I like to listen to, songs I enjoy creating and recording and songs I like to play live. The live songs must have room to expand and evolve….and be fun.

Finally, do you reckon Spinal Tap ripped off Ten Years After’s Stonedhenge?

No, I was never into the mysticism of the henge, I just liked the “stoned” part.