Ronnie Montrose

Rhino, 2017


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


A word before we begin: if you’re looking for a strictly impartial review of this album, keep looking, because this ain’t it. Ronnie Montrose was a friend, and this is his final recorded work, an album he first mentioned to me 15 years ago that was finally completed and released five years after his passing.

In the early ’00s Ronnie had just started playing the old Montrose classics live again after a long period of focusing on instrumental music. He worked with a series of different vocalists and rhythm sections, always looking for the right combination of personalities, approaches to the music, and schedules, and some tremendous players put in time in his rhythm section during that period. One pairing that stuck for quite a while was Ricky Phillips (The Babys, Bad English, Styx) on bass and Eric Singer (KISS, Alice Cooper) on drums, and at one point Ronnie called them up and took them into the studio for three days to cut basic tracks for a new hard rock album—an album he envisioned as a pure power-trio-with-vocals in the classic Montrose vein.

He had the basic riffs and song structures all worked out, but he wasn’t sure yet who he wanted to have sing on the album. This concept soon morphed—I remember conversations about this idea with him around that time that specifically referenced Santana’s Supernatural album—into a showcase where Ronnie would bring in 10 different vocalists to sing on the 10 tracks, with the album to be called, of course, 10x10.

At the time, Ronnie rattled off names like Sammy Hagar and Edgar Winter and Davey Pattison and Eric Martin and Glenn Hughes as potential vocalists, all friends from the scene who he felt confident would step up and do the music justice. And he managed to get a number of those lead vocals recorded in his lifetime, but progress was intermittent and he was touring a lot, and then in 2007, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and everything stopped; he didn’t so much as pick up a guitar for more than two years. When he returned to music, he was focused on getting his health back and playing live, and 10x10 remained on the back burner. When Ronnie died in 2012, the basic tracks were complete and more than half the vocals had been recorded, but the project was still a ways from being finished; among other things, Ronnie hadn’t yet recorded solos for any of the tracks.

The question left when Ronnie died was, would 10x10 ever see the light of day? Phillips and Singer were determined that it would, both as a tribute to their friend, and because the basic tracks were so strong—a testament to the fire that burned bright with Ronnie throughout his career. With the blessing of Ronnie’s widow Leighsa, Ricky Phillips took the album on as a passion project, recruiting additional vocalists and a full slate of guest guitarists to cover the solos, and putting a final mix on the entire production.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

One challenge was clear from the start; no one on this earth plays guitar quite like Ronnie Montrose. Yes, the man could shred with the best of them, but he was never into speed for speed’s sake and disdained guitar-playing as an athletic contest. His playing was all about feel and emotion and channeling the heart and soul of a song with that almost magically pure tone (if you need an example, try “Voyager”). Phillips’ charge to the soloists here was to “play it like Ronnie would have”—a tall order, to be sure.

On the best tracks here, though, that’s exactly what happens. Opener “Heavy Traffic” moves like a muscle car, a churning thumper featuring Eric Martin of Mr. Big and a sing-along chorus. Ronnie drives the song hard, and guest Dave Meniketti of Y&T delivers a searing solo that’s just right for the tune. Later on, “One Good Reason” features a blazing lead from Ronnie, solid vocals from Bruce Turgon (Foreigner/Lou Gramm Band), and a terrific solo from Brad Whitford, who’s the perfect choice here; the song has a little bit of that Aerosmith strut, yet Whitford gives the solo the sort of liftoff and focus on melody over speed that would have made Ronnie smile.

Also a winner is “Still Singin’ With The Band,” with the great Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple) singing a Phillips lyric filled with sly references to past Ronnie song and album titles over a fat, heavy, infectious main riff played by the man himself. “The Kingdom’s Come Undone” rides in astride one of those big galloping riffs Ronnie was so good at, and features an especially explosive performance from Singer, whose playing here reminds of the great Denny Carmassi, and locks in nicely with Phillips’ nimble bass. Closer “I’m Not Lying” is the one ballad here, a bluesy, deliberate number for which Gregg Rolie (Santana, Journey) was again the perfect choice. Phillips wisely opts against featuring a guitar solo on this one, instead bringing Foreigner’s Tom Gimbel in for a soaring sax solo that plays nicely off Ronnie’s rhythm guitar.

Enough dancing around it, though: the best of the best here should come as no surprise at all. When Sammy Hagar comes in with a “Hey, hey, yeah” over the chunky opening riff of “Color Blind,” all you can think is “Where has this been?” The pairing of Sammy’s voice and Ronnie’s guitar still sounds so natural and so right after all these years, it’s just phenomenal, and Toto’s Steve Lukather channels Ronnie beautifully on the solo. Similarly, the “hurricane’s a-coming” riffing that opens “Head On Straight” immediately harks back to “Mayday” on Gamma 2, as it should, since Davey Pattison is on lead vocals, matching up with Ronnie again like apple pie and ice cream. And the solo—damn. Marc Bonilla, a Montrose protégé, absolutely channels Ronnie here, delivering a solo that’s so characteristic of his distinctive style and approach that it’s almost eerie.

There are other fun moments as well, like the Edgar Winter Group reunion on “Love Is An Art,” featuring Edgar on vocal and sax and Rick Derringer on the guitar solo. The only off notes happen when a couple of the soloists disregard the “play it like Ronnie would have” direction (looking at you, Phil Collen and Mark Farner), and in a couple of places where Phillips and company get maybe a little too enthusiastic about adding elements like keyboards and background vocals to the arrangements of what were originally conceived as stripped-down power-trio tunes. But these are quibbles.

The bottom line is that this album, which had been intended as a return to the hard rock form by one of its original leading figures, has been transformed into a final tribute from a group of musical peers who loved and respected Ronnie and his inimitable style. In that sense, the album is never less than a total success; in a career marked by a constant evolution of style and musical approach, 10x10 will stand the test of time as among Ronnie Montrose’s strongest work. Thank you to Ricky Phillips and Eric Singer and Leighsa Montrose for making sure this, Ronnie’s final musical statement, made it out into the world.

Rating: B+

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© 2017 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rhino, and is used for informational purposes only.