Alvin Lee's Long Road to Freedom

With Ten Years After behind him, Alvin Lee finds his way with Alvin Lee Company

Alvin Lee Ten Years After
Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Alvin Lee of 'Ten Years After'.
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LONDON—Alvin Lee is on the road again, and this time he's not going home.

Inspired by a special London concert last March without Ten Years After behind him, Lee bid an indefinite goodbye to his colleagues of seven years.

Ten Years After might someday work together again, he says, but the immediate future belongs to a new band called Alvin Lee and Company. They are now on a six-week U.S. tour, and Lee's Rainbow Theatre concert has been released as an album, In Flight.

"Well," Lee says, grinning in the corridor of his countryside home, a gold record for the Woodstock album hanging overhead, "I'm certainly not going to be playing 'I'm Going Home.'"

In a sense Lee is home, playing the kind of music that earned him that first initial recognition. The new band creates a sense of déjà vu, all of the players going back to their roots. There's bassist Steve Thompson and keyboard player Ronnie Leahy, former members of Stone the Crows, Maggie Bell's starting ground. Drummer Ian Wallace and reed player Mel Collins are former members of King Crimson and have contributed to numerous albums. A percussionist and several backup singers complete the group.

The rejuvenation of Alvin Lee as a musician started before the London concert with an album with Mylon LeFevre, On the Road to Freedom, the first step out of the musical prison TYA had become.

"It got to feel like an old marriage. I started to get the seven-year itch. I wanted a band," he says, "I didn't want it to be Alvin Lee showing off his clever tricks, which is what was beginning to happen with TYA. It all became too mechanical."

The machinelike atmosphere became oppressive during the band's last American tour. "It got to the point where American tours were boring. It was too much like a job; the fun was gone. Everything ran too smoothly. It was just an endless cycle of tours and albums. On that last American tour it got so bad that each day I'd look forward to a different airline, a different color scheme, a higher hotel than the night before."

TYA began to feel like a treadmill – just what Alvin Lee wanted to escape through music. Before Woodstock, TYA was just another entertaining British blues band dabbling in jazz. After the infamous three-day festival the band – Alvin in particular – was elevated to superstar status, confined to a set pattern.

"Yeah," Lee shrugs. "We were a different band before Woodstock. We'd play the old Fillmore and be able to just play. We had respectful audiences then who would appreciate a jam or a swing. But after Woodstock," he winces, "the audience got very noisy and only wanted to hear things like 'I'm Going Home.'

"I've always been much more of a guitar picker but I began to feel forced into a position of being the epitome of a rock & roll guitarist. Originally TYA wanted to make it without having to compromise to pop. It worked for a while but after five or six years the fun went out of it for me, a lot of the music went out of it. And," he smiles shyly, "all I wanted to be was a musician. With this new band I feel relaxed. I have enough freedom that I don't feel pigeonholed anymore.

"Everyone thinks of the group as my solo thing but I think of it as a band. Everyone in the group is free, everyone is their own musician. It's up to each individual what they play.

"This band is just good fun. The excitement of not knowing what will happen next is great; it's a welcome change. It really is like going back to the roots; feeling enjoyment in the music again is how TYA used to feel."

On their recent European trek, audiences shouted for the band to boogie, and to play TYA standards, but were quickly pacified by the new music. Standing out front, Alvin Lee taps his foot gently and takes time finding the right notes. Gone are the bulletlike barrages of lightning-fast solos, the archetypal superstar grimaces, replaced by fluid playing and an anonymous grin. The material is strictly non-TYA.

"Even though the songs are mine, it's the music of the band. I guide a lot of it but it's still down to the group." One might get the impression that this time around the guitarist does not dominate the proceedings. "If anything, Mel plays more solos than I do. When Mel gets his freedom he steers the band toward a kind of nouveau jazz, bordering on the realms of John Coltrane, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. That's what I really enjoy about this band. We'll do a Herbie Hancock-type number and then something like 'Money Honey.' That's the kind of musical freedom I like: jazz, rock, blues, anything.

"You adopt different attitudes when you play different music. This band is more reserved, more disciplined, more tasteful. But the discipline is good. If everyone were to race off on their own solo it would be a mess. My solos are more tastefully conceived now," he nods his head in agreement. "But I still get going in places. It's just that I build up to it now. I don't race off on a solo. I take my time."

While TYA remains in a state of permanent limbo, this band exists at the least through spring. On return from the American tour, they will record an album. But Lee is quick to add that there might be changes: Possibly another album with Mylon, perhaps a tour. Alvin Lee refuses to commit himself anymore.

This story is from the February 13th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 180: February 13, 1975
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