California Breed

May 28, 2014
Whisky A Go-Go
Hollywood, CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Ron Lyon

In 1976, I stepped into the Whisky A Go-Go and saw Van Halen for the first time. I had serious doubts I would ever see a show as powerful and monumental in the small and legendary room as I did that night. But rock and roll is full of surprises. I had no idea there’d be a band like California Breed almost 40 years later making their debut at the famed Hollywood venue — much less that I’d be there to witness it first-hand. But there I stood, on the balcony, surrounded by a curious collection of onlookers, enthralled and sucked in by the raw velocity of a real rock and roll band on a world-famous stage.

There was Chad Smith standing tall with his ever-present backwards ball cap (a powder-blue UCLA Bruins model) and a matching hoodie, leaning back easily on a support beam with a great view of the stage. I congratulated him on his recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Will Ferrell. Then I asked if California Breed were every bit as good as he may have imagined. He nodded his approval and replied with a smile: “Pretty good.”

To my left, Lita Ford sat a small table with a friend, enraptured and totally focused on what was unfolding on stage. Other luminaries like guitarist Steve Lukather and his son Trevor, along with drummers Jimmy D'Anda and Jason Sutter, stood idly by, being fans. Perhaps like me, they were wondering if singer and bassist Glenn Hughes still had the Voice of Rock; if Jason Bonham was going to kick his drumming into supersonic overdrive; and if this new, unknown guitarist from New York City, Andrew Watt, even belonged on the same stage with the other two.

After lively sets from openers Aviators and Drug the Kids, both overjoyed to be here, the moment arrived. You could sense excitement and anticipation as the lights lowered, the blue footlights lining the four corners of the stage beaming up at the ceiling as if a major event was about to ripen before our very eyes. The band emerged and descended down the stairs to the stage. Hughes, in a black vest and red shirt, looked out over the Whisky floor, nodded back to Watt, armed with a red Gibson SG.

Bonham settled in behind his flashy DW kit. It was the FIRST time I’d ever seen a headliner drummer set up on the floor, not on a drum riser, at the Whisky. On each side of Bonham were Orange amps and cabinet stacks. This was California Breed, whose debut album dropped just the week before. After three Black Country Communion albums, Hughes and Bonham picked up the baton and sprinted around the next bend. They were introduced to 22-year-old Watt by Julian Lennon, and decided a power trio spanning three generations might possibly create a nice noise. So here we were, at ground zero, ready to see if this thing would sink or fly off into the stratosphere. There’s really no middle ground for a band like this.

With little fuss and pretense, they launched into “The Grey,” and almost immediately you could tell they were oiled up and primed for a long night. Watt sneered at the audience as he scratched out the thick opening chords of “Chemical Rain,” and later took ownership as he let loose with a wild scatter of slamming, raunchy lead work. It wasn’t about speed or sleight-of-hand sizzle — Watt has a burning, no nonsense style that embeds itself in the songs.

It was a night of FIRSTs: California Breed’s FIRST gig promoting their FIRST album at the Whisky — the venue where Glenn Hughes, as he would tell the spellbound audience, played his FIRST gig in America. And with so many FIRSTs came the most dedicated fans. The guy standing next to me was an absolute, unapologetic Glenn Hughes diehard.

“He’s huge in England!” he exclaimed with an accent. For a second, he sounded Australian, but clearly he was from the UK. And he’d traveled all the way to L.A. to see California Breed. He wasn’t the only one. There were fans from as far away as Germany and Japan who had come to see this band. We compared notes about our Glenn Hughes experiences — his incredible performance with Deep Purple at California Jam; a 1976 Deep Purple show with Tommy Bolin at the Long Beach Arena; a dress rehearsal on the Warner Brothers lot with Black Sabbath in 1983; multiple Hughes/Thrall gigs at the Country Club; and a solo performance here at the Whisky in 2009. The diehard told me he saw Hughes recently at a tribute to Jon Lord at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

“What do you think of the California Breed record?” I asked.

“It’s the best thing Glenn’s done,” he replied without completely thinking it through. He didn’t need to — and I was inclined to agree. Producer Dave Cobb, who basically lit the analog fuse with Rival Sons, certainly brought out the best in the singer. Hughes told me it’s the FIRST time he has sang everything “live” on a record in 45 years.

Meanwhile on the Whisky stage, California Breed scrolled through the album in no particular order. Hughes talked about how the band formed and pointed out how much Andrew Watt looks like him when he was 22. And he thanked Julian Lennon before they played “Solo,” the bonus 13th song on the album, and apparently one of the first tracks Watt emailed to Hughes soon after they met. Oh the wonders of modern technology.

An emotional read of “All Falls Down,” a song Hughes says was inspired by his past struggles with drugs and alcohol, washed over the entranced flock like a dose of white blotter dipped in "Lavender" acid. At this point, Hughes was glowing with love and gratitude toward the audience and his band mates — blissful being alive at and able to perform at a level and intensity unimaginable for a 62-year-old man.

A sly and savvy run through of Led Zeppelin’s “What Is And What Should Never Be” sent chills up to the balcony and offered a rarefied opportunity for all to see Watt play slide. Naturally, it also showcased Bonham, who continually elevated to new, unscalable heights as the show proceeded.

Brimming over with attitude, “Spit You Out” featured Watt front and center on lead vocals, slaying away at the song’s fuzzy, extended crescendo like it was 1973. He and Hughes worked off each other all night, both vocally and instrumentally. There’s a real chemistry brewing in a sea of mutual respect between th two, and that’s what makes it work so well.

Hughes took the spotlight for “Medusa,” the FIRST song he says he wrote and recorded with his FIRST big band Trapeze. I saw him play it here in 2009, but tonight it got the California Breed treatment, driving Watt to his knees as the passion of Hughes’ soaring vocals had jaws dropping in every corner of the room.

Winding down with “Days They Come,” “The Way” and “Midnight Oil,” the band was running on all cylinders, a finely tuned machine without a lapse or a hiccup on the turnarounds. So what do you do for an encore after you’ve shot the whole works? Well, they certainly weren’t about to do a Black Country Communion song. “California Breed is a lot groovier than Black Country,” Hughes told me in April, “It’s more sexual” — and there was definitely a “groove” in the air. So it was time to give the people what they want: Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and Deep Purple’s “Burn,” a consistent closer at Glenn Hughes shows.

Watching Bonham work the snare on “Burn” was a subtle hint that perhaps he’s studied the moves of Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice, as well as those of his famous father. But it was really about Glenn Hughes and how he’s back on top, after 40 years, running through an energized set with world-class, like-minded musicians, together as potent and pumped as any early 70s outfit that plied the circuit to make a name for itself. It’s a different scene now, but maybe California Breed can change it and save rock and roll. For me, it was both an honor and a privilege to see their FIRST show. As the record evolves with the public and more shows are played, I will be watching.

 

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