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"Secret Weapon" review and interview

"Secret Weapon" - Howard Leese
               with SPECIAL AUDIO INTERVIEW!!!
 
      As most of you know, I have been following the progress of this Howard Leese solo CD for quite some time now. I have done two previous interviews with Howard where we discussed his time in Heart, as well as the intricate details of this Secret Weapon solo CD. In this current interview, which took place in Leese's hotel room just before a July 1st Bad Company gig, we discussed just about everything that we didn't cover in the first two. By listening to this unedited interview, you will hear Howard discuss his thoughts about the future of Bad Company, his role in Chinese Democracy, and you'll even hear something that has been written for Secret Weapon 2!!!
    
Allow me to set the scene for you.....
     It is as casual an atmosphere as you could possibly imagine. My son Nathaniel and I are sitting in chairs next to the bed where Howard lies with his brand new custom built PRS guitar. This is an electric guitar that was not plugged in to an amp of any kind and it was recorded with a simple digital voice recorder, so when Howard plays, the audio may sound faint or distant. Enjoy!! 


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 “Secret Weapon” – Howard Leese   
    
The title tends to conjure up thoughts of Secret Service James Bond figures, or possibly those fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction we’ve heard so much about; but for those who are familiar with the back story of Howard Leese, this is a title that defines every thread of the man’s career.   Howard Leese has spent the bulk of his career looking at the backsides of two of classic rock’s most respected women, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart. Acting as not only their guitarist and keyboard player, but also as a kind of musical director and counselor, Leese is responsible for guiding Heart through the very beginnings of their stellar career, as well as through their leaner 80’s years. For more than 22 years he was the glue that held the Heart beat together – their “secret weapon.”

   For the past decade, Leese has acted in a similar role for rock legend Paul Rodgers. Aside from playing guitar in The Paul Rodgers Band, he was also hired as Rodgers’ Musical Director. Again, he plays the man behind the curtain, keeping the roads of his musical Oz paved with gold bricks. Now, Leese, at the age of 58 and still sporting the signature locks of butterscotch atop a still slender 6 foot frame, is primed and ready to move into the spotlight and create music that’s branded with his name and distinct style.

  Howard Leese at XPRS 2008

 

   “Secret Weapon” is inherently Howard Leese. It has every element of his style and persona on exhibit. From the first notes of the lead off track (“Alive Again”), we are socked right in the kisser. Leese squeezes a smooth and somewhat eerie backward guitar effect out, which gives way to a sledgehammer riff that ushers in a memorable Joe Lynn Turner vocal effort. And, after the exploding guitar solo later in the song, it becomes clear that in a musical climate in which most are packing cap guns, Howard Leese is wielding a classic rock 12 gauge. The heavy rock doesn’t stop at the first track either. “Hot To Cold” is another track with Joe Lynn Turner, only this time he duets with singer Deanna Johnston. Johnston, a powerful and soulful singer, best known for her stint on the RockStar:INXS television show, gives a great performance in this spicy hot rocker. Now tell me, who can deliver two songs with Joe Lynn Turner, and follow them up with a beautifully written tune that has Paul Rodgers lending his awe-inspiring pipes? Maybe only Howard Leese is capable of this. “Heal The Broken Hearted” is a beautiful arrangement that showcases Rodgers amazing vocal tone, which is still one of the most captivating in the business. So where can the album go from here, right? You’d need a Keith Emerson keyboard piece or a rare Paul Reed Smith instrumental jam to possibly keep up the pace. Maybe only Howard Leese is capable of this. We get  :43 of Emerson’s ivory tickling (“French Quarter”) before we hear Paul Reed Smith play one of his finely crafted guitars with a Jeff Beck-like precision. Many know of his PRS guitars, but few actually realize that he is also an amazing player. “33 West Street” is a jazz fusion-like jam that captures Smith and Leese joining forces in perfect harmony. As the disc moves into a track entitled “The South Summit,” the vocal duties are credited to “Duke Fame.” This mystery artist, with his role as Duke Fame in “This Is …Spinal Tap,” is none other than former Rough Cutt/Quiet Riot singer Paul Shortino. This song is retro-fitted to the Robin Trower style of guitar, but it also features Shortino singing with a deep, rich tone reminiscent of late Trower vocalist James Dewar. This song is a real treat for a Trower fan iike myself.    It is now the time to show what amazing versatility Howard Leese has as a guitar player. “Rada’s Theme” is set in the soft jazz style, and includes incredibly beautiful tone and tenderness. Leese makes his guitar sound like a Tom Scott saxophone when he’s not making it sing out in an almost lyrical fashion. This beauty gives way to a classic ballad sung by one of the best balladeers in the business, former Survivor frontman Jimi Jamison. “The Vine” is a tune that has “first single” and “radio hit” written all over it. As the disc moves on with “In These Eyes,” we get a little more of the trademark Howard Leese backward guitar effect to start this one. The guitar effect gives way to a Zeppelinesque “No Quarter”-like riff and a brilliant Keith St. John vocal performance. The album takes a leap from this classic rock formula to an instrumental piece that you could almost call a waltz. “Vermilion Border” is a well arranged, ultra melodic instrumental that once again proves how diverse Howard Leese can be. And as far as songwriting, make no bones about it; Leese's skills are skull and clavicle above the rest of the classic rock heap. To further drive this point home, the disc closes with two very different songs. “I’ve Been Leavin’ You” is a vicious blues song with a solo that will make paint peel off your walls. Leese hires Atlanta-based singer Andrew Black to handle the vocal duties on this one, and handle them he does, with great efficiency. Black’s dirty blues tone delivers the perfect touch for this rootsy tune. To close the record, we get a classical-type arrangement adapted from the “West Side Story” musical. The song is called “Somewhere” and it’s drastically different from anything else on the record, and quite a nice goodbye kiss.

   After all of this great diversity and variation of styles, I must mention one constant force throughout each track (except “I’ve Been Leavin’ You”), and that’s drummer Mark Schulman. His impeccable musicianship is on vivid display all through this record. Schulman just might be Leese’s secret weapon here.

 

 

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    Okay, follow the irony here…..   Howard Leese spends his entire career putting others in the spotlight and making sure they stay there, often being called Heart’s “secret weapon.” He now cuts his first solo record, aptly entitled “Secret Weapon,” and it’s an effort that’s sure to thrust him into the spotlight he so patiently has watched dance around in front of him for decades. But knowing the type of musician and personality that Howard Leese is, I’d say you can count on him to not take that step into the waiting spotlight. Instead, he will offer up legends like Joe Lynn Turner and Paul Rodgers for the space, or better yet, the lesser known talents of Deanna Johnston or Andrew Black. You see, Howard Leese is a musician – unselfish and professional in every way. He takes great pride in having his work heard from the dark depths that linger behind the spotlight. The only difference now is that the secret is out, so he might simply be a weapon – one hell of a weapon.

  

You can visit the official Howard Leese website for more info or to purchase Secret Weapon:   http://www.howardleese.com/

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