If you’re like me, hearing announcements about new tribute albums is rarely much to get excited about. Too many of these anthologies are merely collections of cover songs that are uneven at best, simply pointless at worst. However, by miles and miles, Thank You Les, a first-class tribute to the late Les Paul, rises high above the usual all-star ensembles who too often merely re-arrange classic tunes to suit their own fortes.
The musical director for Thank You Les was Paul’s longtime collaborator, rhythm guitarist Lou Pallo. Pallo had not only worked consistently with Paul for 26 years, he has been credited with revitalizing the music pioneer’s live career, especially over the decades when the two performed together Monday nights at New York’s Fat Tuesday’s and later at the Iridium on Broadway until Paul’s death in 2009. Those Mondays became legendary, not only for Paul’s personable showmanship, but for all the jams he shared with the musicians he had influenced who stopped by to spend time with their mentor. Many of those very players appear on Thank You Les.
Pallo’s own guitar work along with other members of the Les Paul Trio are the bedrock for all 21 tracks of Thank You Les. In everyway possible, the tribute seeks to capture the spirit and flavor of Paul’s work, including recording the sessions on analog tape for that old fashioned warmth. With few exceptions, the selections sound like Paul’s own performances as if they were culled from recently discovered archives. That’s not the case, of course, but nonetheless the trip back memory lane swings, sizzles, cooks, and impresses as if every player were able to channel the musicianship of the man who invented the electric guitar. Each and every track is a demonstration of guitar virtuosity laid down with style, sophistication, and often surprising subtlety.
Perhaps the greatest surprise is how so many superstars from rock, country, jazz and pop happily integrated themselves into musical settings so unlike their normal gigs. For example, Steve Miller, who also contributed liner notes, sings and plays on “Mr. Day/Tell Me What's the Reason” and “Nature Boy.” Likewise, Keith Richards provides vocals and guitar for “It's Been a Long, Long Time,” Billy F. Gibbons is featured on “September Song,” Jose Feliciano perfectly suits “Bésame Mucho," and Eddie Brigati of the Young Rascals shows he’s matured in “I'm Confessin' That I Love You.” Nokie Edwards from the Ventures trades lines with Pallo on “Caravan” and “Out of Nowhere.” Perhaps appropriately, Slash is the only axeman to take a classic song and give it a blistering rock feel in “Deep in the Blues.”
There’s an intentional uniformity to the overall feel of the set even if each selection is distinctive due to the players involved and the range of genres. For example, a Louis Armstrong-esque trumpet introduces “”St. Louis Blues,” with singer Jon Paris laying down some hot slide and harp. You can’t get more Country & Western than “Tennessee Waltz” with Pallo and Nicki Parrott sharing some very old-fashioned harmonies.Pulling it all together, American Idol finalist Melinda Doolittle belts out the grande finale, “Over the Rainbow,” easily the most powerful vocal delivery on the album.
Some tunes are more closely connected to Paul than others, such as the old Paul and Mary Ford hit, “ViaCon Dios” performed here by guitarist Arlen Roth and his daughter Lexie. Other notables joining Pallo include Blondie Chaplin, Frank Vignola, Tommy Doyle, and Bucky Pizzarelli.
There will be two versions of Thank You Les coming out this September. One is just the music, the other will include a DVD documentary that apparently goes behind the scenes with Pallo and friends. Speaking of DVDs, an earlier release, Les Paul: Live in New York,captures the master, Pallo, and guests on one of those memorable Monday evenings at the Iridium Jazz Club. Keith Richards, Steve Miller, and Jose Feliciano are among the folks who join in on the intimate sessions with very basic amps, light banter, and a homey approach to the music where jazz meets country and blues with no daylight between them.
Experience that concert when you can, and you’ll realize Thank You Les is what a tribute album should be. If you’re lucky, you can stop by the Iridium any Monday you like—the Les Paul Trio is still doing it.