CD Review of Live at the Hard Rock by Mr. Big

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Live at the Hard Rock
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: American Beat Records
Released: 2007
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American Beat Records continues its reissue series with this live album from ‘90s rockers Mr. Big. Recorded at a show in Singapore and released overseas in 1996, it’s now being released in the U.S. for the first time. Guitarist Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan are supreme virtuosos and when they first joined forces to form Mr. Big in 1989, it was indeed big news on the American hard rock scene. With vocalist Eric Martin and drummer Pat Torpey, the band merged hard rock with pop songwriting sensibilities and technical proficiency to knock out several hits.

But the musicianship was Mr. Big’s main claim to fame. Gilbert plays acoustic guitar for the entire set and the mix is superb, with the acoustic guitar always cutting through clearly. “Alive and Kickin’” and “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind” start things with off with melodic material that gives Martin’s bluesy rasp a chance to shine. Martin sounds somewhat similar to Tesla’s Jeff Keith here, and fans of Tesla’s Five Man Acoustical Jam album should dig this. Sheehan’s dynamic bass playing also shines, while Gilbert shows that he can deliver lightning licks regardless of electrification.

“Where Do I Fit In?” is an upbeat, bluesy rocker that features Martin on a cathartic soul-searching journey. The newer “Jane Doe” features Sheehan leading the way with fat bass runs throughout, setting the table for some great fretwork from Gilbert. The interplay between the duo is what set Mr. Big a cut above many of their contemporaries who only had pedestrian bassists. “Take a Walk” is another high-energy cut that gives Gilbert and Sheehan a chance to jam out, with Sheehan’s bass line recalling several Led Zep classics. Gilbert’s riffing leads the way on “Voodoo Kiss,” but it’s the monster low end from Sheehan that really energizes the song, as is the case for most of the set.

Songs like “Goin’ Where the Wind Blows” and “The Chain” are schmaltzy ballads that feature some nice harmonies, but serious rockers will find themselves looking to the next track. A cover of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” provides a more classic context for the band’s softer side. Martin gets the whole crowd to sing the chorus with him and the song works much better than the aforementioned ballads.

“Take Cover” gets back to the dynamic rocking that Mr. Big does best, with Gilbert throwing out some sparkling guitar work that takes advantage of the acoustic sound, while Sheehan lays down some heavy low end. The band then launches into their breakthrough pop single “To Be With You,” a power ballad that seems to have been both a blessing and curse for the band. The song helped launch the band to widespread success, yet it also trapped them into trying to write more contrived ballads to follow it up, none of which really measured up. But here the crowd appreciation is palpable.

The disc ends with “Daddy, Brother, Lover Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song),” a power jam designed for Gilbert and Sheehan to really shred out. Even acoustic, the song still comes across with a heavy vibe as Gilbert lays down some truly dazzling guitar work over Sheehan’s virtuoso bass line. All in all, the disc serves as a nice document of Gilbert and Sheehan’s skills and is also a lesson on how guitarists can rock out even on acoustic guitar.

~Greg M. Schwartz