01 Elbow Grease
02 Sugar Blues
03 Sub Continent
04 The Trees
Working Man Tribute
05 Clean Up Crew /
Do A Little Dirty Work
06 Crack The Meter
07 Time Enough -
More Than Enough Mix
08 Super Grande
09 Bass Solo
A Selection of Billy’s Finest Work for Magna Carta
Featuring Performances by: Terry Bozzio, Dennis Chambers, Steve Howe, Steve Morse,
John Novello, Mike Portnoy, Jordan Rudess
Exclusive track, a previously unreleased bass solo recorded live in Buffalo NY in 1994.
CD is enhanced with brand new bonus video “Who Is Billy Sheehan ?”.
In the history of rock there have been precious few bassists as prolific and grand in stature than Billy Sheehan. In his every move, there is a little grace and danger. That is, when Billy Sheehan takes command of a rhythm section, it’s not with a torrid rush of notes but with a series of well-considered phrases. This is not to say he plays it safe, though. Billy has a way of making a song threatening and foreboding.
Sheehan’s presence is undeniable. His masterful grooves project across the rows, his oft cited “spider fingers” creating relentless pulsations. Ah, and then there’s his sound, the real hallmark of the professional. A look at his massive collection of instruments, from basses fretted and unfretted, to baritones, to guitars, reveals a dedication to his craft that exceeds that of the mere journeyman. Many an instrument receives a Sheehan modification, attaining a roughly scalloped neck or, perhaps, custom electronics.
As you will hear in Billy Sheehan: Prime Cuts, Magna Carta Records founder Peter Morticelli has assembled a diverse and stellar collection of tracks. Pete’s recollections of the bassist go back to an era when Billy Sheehan was proving to Buffalo and upstate crowds that he was born for the stadium.
“I've known Billy for thirty years,” Pete reflects. “I used to see him play in Talas at local clubs. There was never any doubt that he was going to be recognized as the best bass player in rock; it was his destiny. It was always obvious to me that Billy was a revolutionary player. He is a smart guy with a good sense of humor. All that comes out in his playing.”
Billy Sheehan’s Magna Carta repertoire is, with great respect, more interesting and provocative than his work with David Lee Roth and Mr. Big. On Magna Carta releases, Sheehan is reacting to novel musical circumstances. Tweak the volume and prepare for an adrenaline rush.
First we have “Elbow Grease” from Niacin’s album Time Crunch. It’s a rollicking and significant variation from the traditional organ trio prevalent in Sheehan’s youth. John Novello delivers the simultaneous lithe and crushing Hammond B3 lines, which Sheehan shadows precisely. The grainy chunkiness of the bass tone—and Billy’s seemingly super-human energy—are the fuels that propel this band to frenetic heights. By 4:38 and the final statement of the theme, Billy’s 16th notes are in sync with Dennis Chamber’s prodding double-bass drums. Check out the studio banter at 5:05 and the eerie exit.
“Sugar Blues” is another take from Niacin, this time from the album Deep. Sheehan is brilliant here: He’s lurking in the weeds, waiting to pounce on the ensemble pushes, catching the “and” of beat three with Chambers. At roughly 2:44, after a brief signaling of his intentions with a power fill on snare, Chambers shifts feels to rock half-time and opens up a solo section in which Sheehan takes rapid excursions in and out of key. There’s obviously plenty of fun going on here, live off the floor.
A feeling of dread pervades the intro of “Sub Continent” from The Bozzio/Sheehan album Nine Short Films. The legato lines become more pointed as Sheehan takes us into Arabic territory. Billy is way up in the guitar register throughout, working the Middle Eastern thematic lines for all they’re worth, leaving the whole notes to Bozzio who is doubling on keys.
A marked shift in timbre announces “The Trees” (from Working Man, A Tribute to Rush). Mike Portnoy and Sheehan work well together, with Portnoy holding down Peart duties while Sheehan grooves and ensures that the odd time passages move as if in common time. No blasphemy intended to you Rush fans out there, but to this listener, the current version tops the original.
From Niacin’s Live Blood Sweat And Beers hails “Clean Up Crew/Do A Little Dirty Work”, which takes its cue from Dennis Chambers’ John Bonham-influenced bass drum triplets (think “Good Times, Bad Times”) effortlessly tossed out a 0:38. We’re talking groove city at an unremitting 100 beats per minute, give or take a click. Sheehan is master of the slurring segue keeping it bright and interesting. Speaking of which, his bass solo at 4:16 suggests guitar without abrogating the traditional role of bass.
Trust Jordan Rudess to “Crack the Meter” and pin it in the red, as in this track from his album Feeding The Wheel. Billy’s bass part here is less groove than it is a series of well-constructed section parts (meaning it grooves like a mother!). Of particular interest to you bass “train spotters” is the way Sheehan handles the 7/4 vamp that leads to the guitar chorus, not simply marking the time. Also note how he negotiates the shots at 3:49 with dexterity.
The Explorers Club makes an appearance with the track “Time Enough” (More Than Enough Mix) from Age of Impact. The swirling intro, courtesy of Steve Howe’s acoustic guitar, sets the stage for an ironically out-of-time exploration. Check out Sheehan’s improvisations, particularly his flirting with extreme upper and lower registers, in this mood piece. Incidentally, this track is a Morticelli composite of the original version and the Vapourspace re-mix, unique to Billy Sheehan: Prime Cuts.
Whereas the previous Niacin tracks alluded to the funk/rock organ tradition, the current track, “Super Grande” (from Organik) goes prog with a challenging arrangement. By the four-minute mark, the parts are snowballing in complexity. Sheehan’s at the top of his game, spitting out nimble lines that reach outside of the customary bass register and bassist’s role.
And so you could hear him in seclusion, a Sheehan bass solo caught by a member of the audience with a hand-held mic. Here Billy trots out all of his tricks: high-energy staccato lines, wide stretched notes (when Billy bends and distorts the neck of his instrument), and sparkling harmonics. Pay heed to his rapid-fire delivery (3:44 approx.), in which each note projects clean and with maximum aggression. Sheehan’s command is total and his dexterity borders on flamenco. It is no wonder that the crowd screams for more.
Notes by T. Bruce Wittet
Muzik Etc magazine, Modern Drummer magazine