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Brian May and Kerry Ellis – The Interview
It’s a long way from imitation to innovation.
Let’s face it, as a guitar player it’s much easier to copy someone’s licks or solos; that’s all about possessing the proper technique. But the real trick is developing your own voice on the instrument that sets you apart from the wannabes and copycats.
Queen guitarist Brian May is one of those rare six-string practitioners who sounds like no one else. As evidenced by his spectacular playing with Queen and as a solo artist on such seminal albums as Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack, Night at the Opera, News of the World and The Game, he has rightfully earned the designation of ‘guitar hero’.
With sixpence British coin in hand serving as a plectrum, May’s weapon of choice was his trademark red electric guitar, “The Red Special,” lovingly constructed by the guitarist and his father out of a piece of firewood. Tasteful and fluid, he created a sweeping orchestral style of playing, marrying classical and rock influences; the expansive sound he developed was akin to a violin and guitar melded together.
Listen to the intricately crafted compact solo on Killer Queen,the meticulously precise and soaring answering lead guitar lines on Bicycle Race, and nasty power chord crunch of Tie Your Mother Down for just a few examples of his incomparable guitar work.
For his latest project, The Candlelight Concerts-Live at Montreux 2013 DVD/CD set, the gifted musical maverick teamed with female singer Kerry Ellis, celebrated for her work on Broadway. Recorded in July of 2013 at the Stravinski Auditorium, the stripped-down show features the duo (and occasional keyboardist accompanist) tackling choice covers (Dust in the Wind by Kansas, The Beatles’ Something), standards (The Way We Were, Born Free), and a smattering of Queen jewels, some well-known (Somebody to Love, We Will Rock You, Love of My Life, 39, Crazy Little Thing Called Love) and some lesser-known gems (Life is Real, a song Freddie Mercury wrote about John Lennon and No One But You (Only the Good Die Young).
May also delivers on his guitar hero status performing Last Horizon, a dazzling solo electric guitar composition culled from his 1992 solo album, Back to the Light.
Meanwhile, Ellis’s outstanding voice is up to the challenge, lending a crystalline intimacy to the material; May also contributes confident lead vocals on several tracks. Judging by the uproarious audience reception, the fans agreed, too. Whether performing by candlelight or playing in front of huge crowds at Wembley Stadium, this new DVD/CD set goes a long way towards proving the timeless quality of this handsomely curated collection of songs.
Rock Cellar Magazine spoke to Brian May and Kerry Ellis about the genesis of this exciting project and much more.
Rock Cellar Magazine: How did this project come about?
Brian May: Well, this project evolved over quite a long period. Kerry and I have been working together for 12 years off and on.
We took candles with us so it had an intimate atmosphere and it worked. We’re doing some shows in England now and we’re really enjoying it.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Kerry, what’s it been like for you to interpret this body of work, much it sung by a male vocalist, whether it’s Freddie Mercury, George Harrison or Steve Walsh of Kansas?
Kerry Ellis: It’s been quite fun. A lot of our song choices come from the simple fact that we just enjoy performing the songs. It’s not very calculated; it’s not deeper than that. They’re just good songs and we enjoy performing them. For me personally, getting the chance to sing some of those real classics has been such a joy. You don’t get to perform songs like these every often so it’s been great fun. Singing Dust in the Wind by Kansas is one of my favorite moments of the show because it’s such a simple song.
As a singer you’re usually pushed to your limits to belt it out as hard or as high as you can or to do something as passionate as you can. To be able to sing these really simple songs is a real pleasure because it doesn’t often happen.
Rock Cellar Magazine: By presenting the songs in such a stripped-down fashion, it shines the spotlight on how good all of the songs are in their most skeletal form.
Kerry Ellis: Yeah, we talk about that in the show. We talk about how a good song can be played in many different ways and still be a good song. Good songs can be done with an orchestra or done with just a guitar and a voice and still work. It still has the same impact and power however it’s performed.
When a live show is an overwhelming success there’s a communion between artist and audience, speak about that connection.
Brian May: The reason I wrote We Will Rock You and Freddie (Mercury) wrote We Are the Champions is we enjoyed having that two-way interaction with an audience and that was quite new in those days. These days it’s the norm for people to do that and involve the crowd.
But back in the ‘70s, if you look at the context, most rock groups would go out and play really loud to an audience who would listen but not really react that much. They wouldn’t really give back that much.
When you achieve that connection with your audience during a performance, the concert becomes very much a two-way thing rather than a one-way thing. So with Kerry and me it’s almost like we’re taking it a step further. Kerry speaks about how a song benefits without having too much going on. In fact, if you look at a song it’s words and it’s a tune and it’s a chord structure behind it which gives it context and sort of gets your emotions going.
You can do that with just a voice and six strings on a guitar and it’s a great challenge to do it. That way you’re able to capture the essence of a song. There’s no clutter and there’s nothing getting in the way and there’s no needless ornamentation.
One of the things that I love about Kerry is she does not do ornamentation for its own sake. She sings from her heart. She speaks about singing the song as it was written and that’s what I try to do as well. We love it and the audiences connect with it, no doubt.
They can hear the voice crystal clear and they can hear my guitar crystal clear. I also have a theory; people can’t listen to two things at once (laughs), they can only listen to one thing at a time. We’re all paranoid about keeping things that simple and I’ve been through that with Queen being just a four-piece. Over time we thought we needed to flesh out our sound with keyboards. And then when I went out on my own I thought, “I must have a rhythm guitar!” because if I stop playing rhythm the bottom will fall out of the sound. But it’s actually not true.
We’ll go out with Queen this summer, I hope, and it’ll be stripped-down; it’ll just be guitar, bass and drums and a little bit of keyboards. That’s where Kerry and I are. We don’t have the drums so you don’t have to worry about the voice being drowned out. It’s a real luxury to have and not need to be worried about that.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Brian, your solo electric showcase, Last Horizon, on the new DVD is quite impressive. As a guitar player you are a true original. No one plays like you – or has a sound like yours. Discuss the inspiration and influence behind the manner in which your approach guitar, specifically the way in which you orchestrate parts and solos.
Brian May: I like my guitar to be a voice and sing. People say my playing sounds like an orchestra but it’s that old thing; it’s the degree to which I can bluff. (laughs) People say, “How do you do all that multi-tracking?” and I don’t really; I do have the delay thing, which I work with. It’s really all about being connected with one channel. Kerry has her larynx and I have just my few millimeters of fingers on the string and that’s your voice.
Rock Cellar Magazine: So many guitar players sound like a knockoff of someone else, when did you realize you had found your own voice on the instrument?
Brian May: I always hoped I had a voice on guitar; I dreamed of having a distinctive voice on guitar. Going a long way back, in terms of my playing I hit a point where I remember thinking that maybe this is a new direction for me. Sometimes you just have to keep doing things to get noticed. Same thing goes for Kerry and me; people are beginning to realize what we can do. They have to give themselves permission to like something and get into it. You just need to keep doing what you love and hope it will get noticed and embraced.
Rock Cellar Magazine: For both of you, when did you come to realize that music could be a full-time career and no day job would ever be necessary?
Kerry Ellis: For me, I don’t know if you’re ever comfortable to sit back and go, “Yes, this is it, I’ve made it” or “I’m comfortable right now.” As a performer and artist you’re always striving for the next thing. I love what Brian and I are doing at the moment and I’m constantly thinking, “Okay, what’s next? When are we gonna do this again?” or I’m thinking, “What’s the next level to this? Where do we take this?” What makes you a good artist is to keep trying to improve and keep getting better and moving on.
Brian May: Queen toured with Mott the Hoople as a support act in England and then in the States. Ian Hunter was a sage old person, even in those days when he was young. We sat together one day and he asked, “Brian, how are you doing? Is this tour sitting well with you?” And I said, “I’m doing okay but I’m finding it quite hard to be away from my home stock.” It was the first time I’d been away from home for a long time and it was a long time. He looked at me and sort of put his chin in his hands and said “Brian, if you’re missing your home stock, you’re not cut out for this.”
I thought, well okay, maybe he’s right. But inside me I felt it was all worth it to be doing what I was doing with Queen because it was just magic. And it’s always been that way for me, so thank you, Ian. (laughs) That’s when I realized we were on our way and didn’t need to get a job like all of my other friends. I loved my home life but I had to follow my dream. It was such an amazing opportunity to do something extraordinary and that was the moment where it crystallized it for me.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Kerry’s world of Broadway and the world of Queen are not far apart.
Brian May: Yes, our styles mesh very well together and that’s why this works so well. Incidentally, we have a couple of new songs in the set now. Again, we’re doing simple songs that are beautiful. We added the song So Sad by The Everly Brothers to our set. That’s an iconic song for me and it’s a big part of my childhood and Kerry loves it too.
It gives us a chance to sing together, which is fun. There’s nothing to that song, it’s very simple, it’s just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, a little middle-eight and then you’re done. But it’s just beautiful, it speaks from the heart and it goes over really well. We have another one we’re doing in the set, which is also not on the DVD. It’s the song If I Loved You from Carousel. Now that’s not the world of rock and roll but my God, it just works like a dream for us. A beautiful song is always a beautiful song.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Born Free surprisingly works for a rock audience.
Brian May: Exactly. I feel very proud of that. I think most people would not have imagined that a song like Born Free would work for a rock audience. It was a song recorded by Matt Monro and the attitude and atmosphere was all full of smiles. The way we do it it’s full of anguish because wildlife is now in a troubling state all around the world. Born Free no longer means, “Yippee, isn’t everything great?”
There was a hint of that in the original but now because of the arrangement it feels different. At my request, I actually got Don Black, who wrote the original words, to add a few lines, just to take it a little bit further. So I feel very happy about our version of that song.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Kerry, what’s the song you look forward most to singing in the set?
Kerry Ellis: Oh dear, it depends really. I don’t think there’s anything on our set list that I don’t enjoy performing or singing. They’re all slightly different. If I Loved You is very passionate and quite sparse; I love doing that. But then I love singing Dust in the Wind because it’s just so simple and laid back for me and Brian has a solo in the middle of it, which he might not find as relaxing (laughs) but I like the flow of the set and how I get to perform all different kinds of sides of myself. So there are different extremes within the set. It’s hard to pick one that I like doing the most because I quite like them all. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: What have been the greatest challenges that have presented themselves to you working on this project? Was there any worry how it would be received by a rock audience?
Brian May: No, not at all. I was never worried about how it would go over with an audience. Honestly, there were no fears on my part; we had no expectations, really. People had seen Kerry do all the big musicals for a long time and they’ve seen me in Queen do all the big shows. In the beginning when we started doing shows together I’m sure the audience was thinking, “I wonder what they’re gonna do?” We just thought if we enjoy ourselves and if we feel we can communicate in these songs then the people will as well and it just worked; the more we enjoy ourselves, the more the audience enjoys themselves.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Being so familiar with Queen’s stomping rendition of Tie Your Mother Down, the acoustic version on the new DVD/CD is quite startling and different. Was that song originally written on acoustic guitar?
Brian May: Tie Your Mother Down was written on acoustic guitar. I was in Tenerife and I had a little guitar that I’d just bought in town. In those days there weren’t mobile phones so I was very much on my own and miles away from the nearest town. I was playing the guitar and came up with this riff and didn’t know what to do with it. I think that riff was inspired by Rory Gallagher and I was playing my acoustic as if it were an electric.
The version I do with Kerry we call “Country and Western” but Country and Western people would probably be insulted. (laughs) But it had that kind of relaxed feel. For me, it’s nice when it kicks into that intensity when I strap on an electric guitar halfway through and play the rest of it. We enjoy playing Tie Your Mother Down. All the songs we do we do differently and that’s one of the joys of working together. We’re under no constraints to do anything the way it’s ever been done before. It’s really nice and loose and happy.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Songs have the miraculous ability to lift you up and deliver you through tough emotional times. What songs have helped get through a bad period?
Kerry Ellis: At the moment ‘cause we’re on tour and we’re very involved with the show and what we’re doing together, to perform Tie Your Mother Down at the end of the show is very uplifting for me personally because it summarizes the show at the moment. It’s great fun. It’s a different twist on how the song is usually played and that’s really uplifting for me personally.
Brian May: I do need music to help me through. I love the song Back on My Feet Again by The Babys. It says I’m not beaten yet, I’m here standing, I will continue into the future and I will not fall down.
The other one that lifts me up from being depressed is the Foreigner song, I Want to Know What Love Is. Lou Gramm was one of the great singers of our generation.
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