Perhaps the saddest thing about the unexpected passing yesterday of Alvin Lee at age 68 was the fact it took his death to jolt many of us, myself included, into remembering how great he was.
As the inventive, intensive frontman for Ten Years After during its heyday from 1966 through 1974, Lee was a gleeful anomaly among British guitarslingers. He could play the blues with the best of them and out-boogie all of them. But when the right song hit, he could sail into beautifully uncharted waters – areas that blended blues, psychedelia and even prog.
The band’s masterful 1971 hit, I’d Love to Change the World, stands as the most obvious and lasting example. But there are bits of such stylistic meshing on all of their albums, from the stellar string of Deram releases in the late ‘60s (highlighted by 1970’s splendid Cricklewood Green) to a quartet of underappreciated ‘70s recordings on Columbia (culminating in 1974’s prog-inspired Positive Vibrations).
To casual fans, the defining moment of Lee’s tenure with Ten Years After was its extended boogie rampage version of I’m Going Home at Woodstock in 1969. It certainly matched the other exhilarating highpoints in the festival’s documentary film. But Lee regularly expressed frustration in interviews at how audiences seemed to feel the Woodstock performance staked out his band’s stylistic limits. Happily, the success of I’d Love to Change the World broadened that view.
I have to sheepishly admit I’ve haven’t listened to Ten Years After in, well, several years. But last night I spend a few enjoyable hours with the band’s early albums – like 1968’s Undead, a concert record that boasted an insane version of the Woody Herman swing classic Woodchopper’s Ball, and 1970’s Watt, with the lean and beautifully despondent Lee original Think About the Times.
Sure, there were more prominent guitar heroes back in the day. But 45 years after Ten Years After was unleashed unto the pop world, the playing of Alvin Lee still sounds as potent and enlightened as ever.