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NIGHT LIFE

Alvin Lee, the Guitar God of 10 Years After, Ventura-Bound : He plays 'basic roots blues--high energy,' and he doesn't neglect the memory songs for his fans of yesteryear.

November 03, 1994|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Attention parents: Be careful who you bring home to your impressionable offspring. If you were to invite Willie the Wino, Jack the Ripper or the Pillsbury Dough Boy to the house, well, who knows what strangeness may ensue?

Now, once upon a time in scary olde England, the Lees brought home famous blues dude Big Bill Broonzy, and their boy, young Alvin, ended up being a guitar god fronting Ten Years After. Alvin made several hit albums, millions of dollars and drew plenty of rock fans who couldn't get enough of that wailing guitar.

Now nearly Thirty Years Later, Lee returns with a new album, "I Hear You Rockin'," and a Saturday night gig at the venerable Ventura Theatre. The new album is a throwback to TYA's 1966 self-titled debut album. It's bluesy, but not boring because Lee knows too many licks to induce drowsiness.

Lee could also write those mean blues lyrics. From "A Sad Song," a sample line: "My face in the mirror reminds me of you. It's the one that you lied to when you said you'd be true."

But Ten Years After, among other things, is remembered for perhaps the most famous song--"I'm Going Home"--on the endless "Woodstock" movie.

Recently, Lee, who speaks slower than he plays, talked by phone from a Rhode Island hotel room.

Where's the old Ten Years After guys, Chick Churchill, Leo Lyons and Ric Lee?

We had a reformation in 1989, but we closed it down after a few months. It was kind of like getting back together with your ex-wife. It's fine for a couple of months. Leo has his own band; the other two, I lost track of.

Ten Years After, like a lot of other British bands, started out as a blues band. How did you get those blues?

My father was always playing this ethnic blues stuff around the house, and both my parents played. Then one day my father brought home Big Bill Broonzy, and there he was sitting in our living room playing, and blues was in my heart from the time I was 12 years old. I took lessons for a year and learned all the chords and had my first band when I was 13, the Jail Breakers.

What was it like making the jump from small clubs to the giant venues?

It wasn't very satisfying playing the big arenas, but it was good as far as a paycheck. But the sound was terrible, especially in hockey arenas--the sound would go on for 30 seconds after we quit playing. They didn't have a security staff then, but real police officers with guns. You can't hear anything; you can't see anything except for the backsides of policemen. It wasn't very conducive to fun. We used to do songs like "Woodchopper's Ball," but these songs don't work in a big room. The sound becomes really heavy and we lose the "roll" in "rock 'n' roll." Then when we'd play a little club, there'd be trouble outside because everyone couldn't get in. I just wanted to enjoy what I was doing, but I wasn't enjoying that at all.

So being a rock star in the '60s and '70s was good and bad?

Absolutely, good and bad. I always wanted just to be a blues guitarist. And I don't think I was quite ready for it all and I had what they called "head problems." There were a lot of responsibilities, especially the media responsibilities, which were overwhelming. I'd do 12 of these interviews in a day. Then we'd tour for three months straight then get two days off and they'd call and say, "You're in the studio next week--hope you have the songs ready."

Ten Years After went away when you guys changed labels and released "A Space in Time" in the '70s. What happened?

It was coincidental. "A Space in Time" is about the time off I managed to take off to work on the album. They'd be telling me, "Alvin, you can make a million dollars in the next six months." But I thought, "I just made a million dollars in the last six months and it's not doing me any good." Anyway, I thought I wrote a lot of good songs for that album. No longer do I let the pace of work interfere with the creative forces. This will be just a five-week tour.

Do you still play Ten Years After songs?

Of course I still do, and "I'm Going Home" is the last song. But for a while, I quit playing it. When we'd do a gig, I could hear people shouting for "I'm Going Home" after the first song, and I'd tell them, "So, go home then." You know, Jimi Hendrix got tired of playing "Hey Joe." In 1979 or 1980, I saw Jerry Lee Lewis in Birmingham, and he was going through his country and western phase and didn't do any of his hits. I was very disappointed. It made me realize that if I didn't play the songs people wanted to hear, they wouldn't want to come and see me.

What's Alvin Lee's brand of blues?

We were doing stuff that was called blues rock at the time, then underground rock, then it was psychedelic rock, but it was all the same thing, really. It's basic roots blues--high energy. I don't describe it. I play it.

I read a review once that said you were just "10 fast fingers and a pretty face." What did the critics always get wrong about you?

I suppose it was the whole Captain Speed Fingers thing, the fastest guitar player, and all that. I never tried to be the fastest; I've even tried to slow myself down. A lot of these new guys can play ridiculously fast, but there's no light and no shade, and most of them run out of licks in a few minutes, anyway. Sometimes, it actually sounds faster if you play slower. Like the song says, I want to keep on rockin'. Those old guys like John Lee Hooker, who must be--what, 80?--he's still going strong.

Details

* WHAT: Alvin Lee, Nine Below Zero.

* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St.

* WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m.

* COST: $16.50.

* CALL: 648-1888.

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