Monday, September 17, 2007

Review: Webb Wilder & The Beatnecks

Toughing It Out with Webb Wilder
by Tony Conley

Friday, August 10, 2007, Wilbert’s, Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland Rocks. It always has, and it always will. This night was no different, and to prove this point Webb Wilder opened with a rocket shot arrangement of Ian Hunter’s “Big Time.” True enough, as the song says: “You’re never too small to hit the Big Time!” And you never know, Webb might just make it yet.

A straight Wilder show would be worthy of a few ounces of ink, but to make it a little more interesting for the gear-heads among us (Wilder included), we decided to do an amp review and comparison at the same time.

Bill Jansen of Reeves Amplification was kind enough to supply one of his Custom 30 heads. Webb fired it up for the first set, switching to his old standby Hi Watt for the remainder of the evening. More on that in a bit….

Wilder has long been a tone aficionado of some note. His shows and recording sessions look like a small scale vintage guitar show. However, he’s also on the cutting edge of tone, using Collings Guitar’s 290 an impressive new dual P90 workhorse (though of course he’s changed the pickups already to an ancient set of old Gibsons), as well as pedals including a Lizard Leg Effects ‘Flying Dragon” boost (which he was fearlessly trying out this night, as well), a Fulltone Fatboost, and a Seymour Duncan SFX-01 pickup booster.

Webb and his band The Beatnecks played a wide range of tunes, easing from the sweet country pop of “You Might Be Lonely for a Reason,” to “Human Cannonball” which sounds like a Nashville version of AC/DC, to the blazing duel guitar blues-rock classic, “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Lead guitarist Tony Bowles (Hank Williams Jr.) is given a free hand to provide sultry fills, power chords, stinging feedback-laden leads, and some fine faux organ (courtesy of Hughes and Kettner’s Tube Rotosphere Mk. II). Talking to Tony after the show he mused, “It’s really tough, I told myself tonight that I wouldn’t use it so much. But it works a little bit on every song in the set.” Well, not quite every song, but he did use it a lot and it sounded perfect. When using the Leslie simulating Rotosphere, Bowles sounds like a B-3 player, not a guitarist aping an organ sound.

Wilder and Bowles swapped leads all night long. Bowles drifted from a Strat, Les Paul Standard, Paul Reed Smith Hollowbody, and a beat up old Telecaster, and they all sounded really good, though his Strat tone is exceptional, with barely controllable feedback jumping out of his set of original ’57 Strat pickups.

 Webb will tell you that "I'm not a great guitar player,” but that’s his humble nature and not quite the truth. From Chuck Berry rhythm chugging, that according to Webb, “Sounds like it’s filtered through Dave Edmunds, then turned inside out,” on to swampy leads that feature great double stops, partial chords, and some sweet note bending, he’s not only listened closely, he’s been to the woodshed a good deal. It takes nerves and chops to trade fours with a player like Bowles, and Wilder was more than up to the task.

And Tony Bowles is a perfect foil to Wilder’s commanding stage presence and antics. He constantly evokes wonderful tones from his array of classic axes. Stylistically, he’s a nice blend of Billy Gibbons, Page, and Jeff Beck. Pentatonic based, but some considerable stretches that go “out,” but never too “out." Not many bands can play four instrumentals in a set and still be called straight ahead rock and roll, but these guys pull it off. Wilder has long featured his half surf/ half sci-fi soundtrack instrumentals on every one of his records, like “Sputnik” from 1991’s “Doo Dad” to last year’s “Scattergun.” They are some of the catchiest guitar instrumentals since The Ventures, both melodic and chop laden. What more could you want?

On top of great songs, red-hot guitar playing, tuneful harmony vocals, and a smoking rhythm section (Jimmy Lester ex-Los Straitjackets on drums, Tom Comet on outstanding bass and vocals), these guys hung out after the show and mingled, shook hands, and signed autographs for half the crowd.

Oh yeah, the Reeves amp. Webb used the Reeves for the first set. It sounded great. His rhythm playing cut through nicely with a healthy dose of Stones-ish chunk, and his leads were thick and creamy, even using his Telecaster. Webb covers a lot of tonal territory, as evidenced on the band’s 2006 live dvd “Tough It Out.” Worthy of the name it wears, this amp had all the cleanliness and chime of an old HiWatt, but also had more modern snarl when necessary. KT66 power tubes made sure the amp had plenty of headroom, even at 30 watts and in a fairly large club. Not loud enough for Nu-Metal, but perfect for its intended use. When all is told, it’s an excellent rock and roll machine.

Webb sounded great playing through the Reeves. Playing on a small stage built into a corner, the band had trouble hearing themselves but soldiered on brilliantly. Out front the amp sounded great and lived up to its promise as a salute to its namesake, but with modern features. In a follow up e-mail Wilder stated, “I think the KT-66 power tubes may be a part of what gives it a cool ‘under you fingers’ kind of lead sound and feel. You can get ‘Hi-wattey’ with it, but, it has a cut control like a Vox, and other knob differences.” His old HiWatt sounded excellent also, but I’d give the nod to the Reeves. I appreciated Wilder’s subtle six string talents more when he played through the Custom 30. It cut through the mix better and stayed sweet and chimey. That points out the importance of setting when evaluating a piece of gear. The band was playing on a stage built into a corner, which results quite often in masked frequencies for those on stage, though it sounded great out front. As Webb put it, “To be honest I couldn’t hear a tone I liked tonight out of either amp.” He had been impressed with the sound and feel of the amp during soundcheck, especially it’s thick, creamy lead tone. Wilder, “I thought the Reeves had a thing for lead reminiscent of a Marshall JTM-45 (a KT-66 amp).” Out front they sounded just fine, fine, fine.

When all was said and done, I had the impression that all that gear lust and devotion to guitar tone has paid off in spades for Wilder’s rock and roll dreams. “If you would have told me when I was 13 that 40 years later I’d be playing guitar for a living, I’d have been pretty happy.”

Special thanks go out to Bill Jansen for supplying the Reeves amp, and to Webb for all his hospitality and time.

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