Gathering no moss, English guitarist extraordinaire rolls his milestone up the hill and lets it loose.
To call this artist a national treasure or musician’s musician would be dropping praising too commonplace to properly describe his status. Paul Brett’s playing, if not name, is inextricably entwined in the very fiber of British popular music. Not name – because he’s one of the best kept secrets, or secret weapons, of this entire cultural layer, its vital force from the ’60s onwards; but playing – because his guitar left an imprint on a lot of important records. A simple fact of Paul replacing Jimmy Page in THE CRUSADERS to be, in his turn, replaced by Albert Lee should speak volumes of the veteran’s professional level – and cranked-up volume is something he knows and loves, whereas entrancing calm is something he’s an expert in. The brightest miracle of Brett is his ability to, unlike his multiple peers and contemporaries, never stop evolving while remaining true to himself and constantly developing the manner so familiar to many and still so fresh.
All the more surprising, then, must have been the absence of a Paul-centered compilation focusing on a particular aspect of his immense body of work, let alone a life-spanning collection, yet here it is: a definitive – temporarily definitive, as Brett’s continuing to grow this garden – box set touching upon albums that bear his signature and going beyond the scope with a smattering of unheard gems. The ninety-two numbers on display, spread chronologically over four discs, are but mere results of scraping the surface in the oeuvre so vast and varied – and scattered across the myriad of releases – that even a box set will fail to fully reflect, especially one which doesn’t include the veteran’s sessions, omitting the parts he contributed in 1970 to STRAWBS’ “Dragonfly” or "The Magic Shoemaker" from Dave Lambert‘s FIRE: an early example of Brett’s art being acknowledged and deployed by fellow guitarists.
This anthology begins much earlier, though, in 1964, when the teenage Paul supplied blistering flurries of notes for THE SW4, channeling rhythm-and-blues staples like “Shame, Shame, Shame” without trying to emulate Jimmy Reed and other heroes of his, but THE UNION he served in a couple years later gave the six-stringer the chance to provide the twang on “Shake” and other proto-soul classics. The axeman would return to delivering covers decades down the line – in 1980, turning “I Will Survive” and “Nights In White Satin” into exquisite filigree, and in 2017, morphing “Bat Out Of Hell” into skiffle, only to leave 2009’s take on “Shakin’ All Over” to stand out as a perfect unplugged reading of the perennial – until the stint in TINTERN ABBEY in 1967 allowed him to savor the taste of composing original material. Their baroque-tinctured “How Do I Feel Today” may sound naïve now, save for Paul’s jangle, yet this song is somehow echoed in “Do Not Go Gently Into That Goodnight” from 2017, just like the dramatic “Devil’s Grip” single which THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN – an outcome of Brett’s brief, and sonically unremarkable, stay there – debuted with right after the Summer of Love, reverberates through 2018’s "The Devil's Whisper" by PAUL BRETT SAGE, the maestro’s personal vehicle in recent times.
Before the young artist established an ensemble of his own, he joined THE VELVET OPERA in 1969 and enriched their repertoire with distinctive pieces, among them “Raise The Light”: the fuzz-infused and – a harbinger of greater things – acoustically laced ballad. So once the band that bore the guitarist’s name came to be, all the required techniques were at the ready, the stinging, psychedelic “3D Mona Lisa” – the opening cut on PAUL BRETT SAGE’s eponymous first album from 1970 – showing everything the troupe’s leader, and henceforth a singer, could hook the audience on, whereas the folksy “Trophies Of War” revealed both his softer side and sociopolitical stance. The group’s sophomore LP, 1971’s “Jubilation Foundry” – credited to PAUL BRETT’S SAGE, with apostrophe – added country rock to Paul’s stylistic armory and stressed his vocal strength, as well as wrapped sweet tunes, of which “Written In Winter” is a nice instance, in orchestral shroud, contrasting the nuanced heaviness of the record’s title track. Sadly, the arresting “Ulysses The Traveller” didn’t land on vinyl; instead, the quartet’s last platter, “Schizophrenia” from 1972, busted stereo and squealed with a dirge-dark, if infectious, riff of “Custom Angel Man” and had the chorus of “Charlene” chime with a rustic charm. And then the collective experience was over and Brett sailed solo.
His self-titled album saw the light of day in 1973 and found the musician in a producer’s chair and in a minstrel mode, weaving worried wonders on a flute-flaunting “Handful Of Rain” and flaring tentative flamenco, spiced with minimal percussion, on “The Spanish Main” alongside “The Ant” and its jolly licks. But 1974’s “Clocks” offered the listener a more robust affair, David Palmer and Martyn Ford’s arrangements fleshing out several cuts – however present here are a brace of playful numbers and the fiddle-kissed “Empty Dreams And Flying Machines” that’s simultaneously gloomy and otherworldly. Almost as transparent looked Paul’s concert performances, preserved for posterity on the “Bradley’s Roadshow – Live At The Marquee” document, out in 1973, where Brett melded a medley from a triplet of crowd favorites, humorously marrying tango to a jig, and made “Strawberry Fields Forever” his own. Such an approach set the tone for the master’s subsequent works, and 1975’s “Phoenix Future” – released on the guitarist’s personal label of the same name – confirms the allure of his choice, as record’s titular suite has English bliss flow into Delta blues and into Appalachian plea, while Paul’s voice soars, lark-like, to the skies; and this is the place, albeit a slightly blacker one, he would be located in as late as 2019, when "The Raven" – the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired song-cycle – signaled the veteran’s comeback to the mythical avian lore.
With more strings to his bow, Brett first attempted to use the method, without accompanists, in 1977 on the rather short “Earth Birth” that hosted the captivating “Christened By Fire” and “Alone In Space” whose crystalline ripples can also be heard on Paul’s 2017’s handling of “Space Oddity” from the strictly digital “Classics For 12 String Guitar” – rubbing shoulders with the aforementioned Meat Loaf smash. Nowhere near as faux-austere as the preceding album and as scintillating as disco dances of the day, “Interlife” from 1978 proposes a sharp attack of “Into Life” and unfolds a magnificent, richly textured side-long tapestry which the LP was titled for, lush neon-lit harmonies feeding the progressive rock slant of the epic and welcoming Mel Collins into the fold – for the legendary saxophonist to visit his old friend again on “Devil’s Whisper” forty years later. Overseen like its predecessor by Tom Newman of “Tubular Bells” fame, 1979’s effervescent “Eclipse” – both the longplay and the record’s centerpiece – still seems a major achievement, the angry riffs and silky licks of “Chaos” refracting punk’s angst.
Back to deceptive simplicity, 1980’s “Guitar Trek” reunited Brett with another VELVET OPERA alumnus and 12-string aficionado, Johnny Joyce, and let the two trade melodic figures on pseudo-traditional “The Bishop Went Down To Fulham” – their fingers competing in terms of agility and eloquence – where electricity reigns, too. The colleagues laid down another album: issued only in 2000, under the two names now, “Acoustic Power” explored the outdoor lore on the pellucid “On The Road” and the brisk “Dollars And Dames” – but not before Paul put out a pair of covers-ridden platters, “Romantic Guitar” and “Guitar For All Seasons” whence his a bit bombastic, as per period’s demands, upgrading of “Albatross” emerged. However, the groovy “Love Is A Crazy Thing” from the same time could shoot up the charts even today, yet this Caribbean-flavored cut from 1983, one of the most memorable in the box set, got left on the shelf next to the breezy rockabilly number “Didn’t Get So Excited” that signaled the start of Brett’s creative collaboration with Michele Breeze, the star of musicals and his future partner – a relationship which would bring forth some riveting theatrical shows.
What followed in the wake of those archived pieces was lingering silence, at least in a studio-documented form, broken in 2005 with the appearance of “Anal Tap” – renamed eventually into “Derelict Songs”: containing tender serenade “Earth” and a eulogy “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” lamenting the genre’s fallen heroes in a way troubadours patented, the disc marked Paul’s resurgence, and the revival of “Jesus On The Main Line” side-by-side with Brett’s “Walkin’ On My Grave” on 2009’s “Blues For 12 String Guitar” substantiated his second advent. It proved to be quite prolific, as Paul’s plan for the same year included two more releases, "Songs From The Compleat Angler" and “Metamorphosis”: one a serene philosophizing with piscatorial subtest, based on Izaak Walton’s treatise from 1653 and brimming with vulnerable and muscular balladeering, represented here by “The Passionate Shepherd To His Love” and “Virtue” – both intimately forceful; the other an array of tangible and lyrical pictures, best summarized with “Wave Dancers” whose Latin flame is ethereally hot.
Afterwards, the veteran’s solo works and albums as SAGE have been interchanging, 2014’s quasi-collective’s "Emergence" is given vestiges of psychedelia on “Amsterdam” and the hellish drone and choir of “666” that fathom the depth of eternity, while the individually signed “12 String Blues Power” from 2015 treads on well-known routes, the swift and celestial “Rock Island Line” reminding everyone of Brett’s spell in the company of Lonnie Donegan, contrary to 2016’s “12 String Instrumental Power” which comprised delicate sketches such as “Stone Survivors” – played on a Gryphon guitar Paul became a guru of. All these got offset with the single “Bullet” – vigorously shot out in 2017 as a precursor to the band-shaped “Eclectic” where the equally finger-popping “One Night Stand” and the fierce “Metal Hearts – Mental Minds” are stationed, with Brett’s energetic vocals and six-string tinsel at the fore.
Voice and guitar edge might be missing from "Suite Viator 12" – the only album this anthology passes on – yet these elements rage on the recent concept offerings, the previously mentioned “Devil’s Whisper” and “The Raven”: the box set’s morose finale, they still manage to graciously rock and roll on “From The Cradle To The Grave” to flutter on the communal singalong of “Sun” and then plunge into the stark dread of “The Pit And The Pendulum” and the frightening hope of “Evening Star” – dim but possessed with irrepressible magnetism.
As is the entire span of Paul Brett’s cache of music. Long-overdue, this compilation opens the door into his fascinating world of innumerable possibilities and pleasures, ushering in countless delights. Delve in at your own peril: get interested, investigate and you can be lost in there forever.