[24 May 2004]
Most people in America don’t know and will never know of Ian McLagan, and though that’s predictable enough, it’s anything but commendable. After all, this is a man whose career stretches back nearly to the beginning of the Beatles and whose ivory-tickling and organ-stroking graces records by the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Westerberg, John Hiatt, and Taj Mahal. Most notable of all is his membership in Small Faces and Faces, two of the very best British bands to never make as much of a dent in America as they deserved to (though the latter made a lot more headway). Despite the similarity of their names and the carryover of three members from one group to the next, Small Faces and Faces bore little if any resemblance to each other, the personality of each stemming from little Steve Marriott at first to big Ron Wood and equally altitudinous Rod Stewart at second. This remark might lead the casual observer to devalue the contributions of McLagan, drummer Kenney Jones, and bassist Ronnie Lane, but in reality, the opposite should be the case. Neither Marriott nor the Wood/Stewart team could conjure up their trademark sounds on their own. They relied—to a degree only musicians seem to understand—on their backing group, and the smoothness of the transition between psychedelic mod rock to sloppy, piledriving pub rock is one of the sadly unheralded feats in rock history.
Sadder still is the inevitable fate of the invisible heroes that helped carry it off. After Stewart left to attend to his skyrocketing solo career and Wood joined the Stones, abandoned Faces McLagan and Jones hooked up with a floundering Marriott for a couple of lousy Small Faces albums before Jones filled Keith Moon’s drum stool in the Who. Lane, who skipped out on the reunion records after clashing with Marriott, forged ahead as a solo artist, more loved by his peers than the public, before dying of MS in 1997. And Mac began playing with other artists, keeping busy enough but lacking the steady paycheck that should be the guaranteed reward for any musician of his standing. His new album, Rise & Shine, probably won’t make him any more financially secure than any of his three previous solo works, but when compared to the latter work of his former mates Rod Stewart and Ron Wood (not to mention Marriott’s output with Humble Pie in what should’ve been a glorious time for him), Rise & Shine is a triumph of integrity, musicianship, and guts. Along with his excellent assemblage of musicians, McLagan proves that being the less famous Mac from early ‘60s Britain can still have joys rivaling being rock’s first billionaire.
Judging by the attempts of Mac’s extent peers, making a geezer rock album leaves one with the choice of trying to recapture the original sound that won the audience’s love in the first place (the Stones) or turning the amps down to accommodate the fans’ aging eardrums (Rod Stewart, Sting, etc. ad nauseum). Both have their pitfalls, and the combined output of the over-fifty set leads an honest person to believe that maybe we should force our rockers into retirement at the five-decade mark, if not sooner. But then there are the Tom Waitses, the Neil Youngs, and the Paul Wellers who show that even when you’re not always hitting the mark in your old age, you can still make things interesting, and Mr. McLagan certainly does that. He gets the sound right, sewing his band together tight without sanding away all the requisite grit, but more importantly, he comes up with the songs to make Rise & Shine a genuinely enjoyable listen. And despite its ample roots-rock cred, the album is catchy, catchier than perhaps any band he’s been involved in since Small Faces. Vocals are a pleasant surprise as well. Understandably overshadowed in the good old days by Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart as well as by the unique stylings of Ronnie Lane, McLagan nevertheless has a voice as ragged and endearing as one might expect from a Face. The sum of the proceedings isn’t on par with A Nod Is as Good as a Wink… To a Blind Horse, but few things in this world are, and a more fair assessment of Rise and Shine would be to say that it gives the impression that when McLagan takes his victory lap in Rock ‘n’ Roll Valhalla, the crowd will be cheering a lot more enthusiastically than when his more famous ex-bandmates trot around the track.