November 2001

Al Lee - Ain't Playing the Game
Wildchild  CD 08752
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Who is Al Lee? A quick perusal of the website yielded nothing helpful. Pierre Sprey’s somewhat sparse liner notes provided some clues, but little positive information. A look at the pictures (particularly the one inside) might lead you to believe that Lee is Nick Nolte’s older brother. But it only takes one listen to this CD to come to the inescapable conclusion that Al Lee is a guitar player and songwriter of extraordinary ability.

Ain’t Playing the Game begins with the tune "Rainy Changes," a blues duet between Ben Andrews’ (of the Blue Rider Trio) National Steel guitar and Lee’s acoustic Martin. (On all the solo cuts, Lee plays a handmade walnut acoustic guitar.) The interplay between Andrews' lead work and Lee’s superb rhythm work is stunning in its complex simplicity, and only serves to whet one's appetite for the remainder of the disc. Yet, before you can get cozy with the idea of a blues duo recording, Lee launches into "The Sacred Game," a solo folk/rock cut with slightly spiritual overtones that reminds me of nothing more than a smoother voiced Bob Dylan (relatively speaking, of course). And then, to really throw off your sense of musical compartmentalization, he lays down a true, self-penned, spiritual called "Come Away" (with vocal help from Kenyatta and Gloria Jolivet).

OK, so just what kind of album is this? Blues? Folk? Rock? Christian? Yep, you got it! It’s all of those -- and more. (And trying to figure out just where to file this disc should drive all those CD store clerks nuts.) But, if you have to use just one word to sum this album up, it is: music. That’s what Al Lee has created here -- real, heartfelt music. The kind that gets into your head and under your skin, remaining with you long after the CD stops spinning.

Sonically, this is a Mapleshade production (under the Wildchild label), so you know right from the get-go that the sound is going to be something special. And it is. Listen to the guitars. Andrews’ National Steel is crisp and clean. It’s easy to follow his lead guitar work. But wait till you hear Lee’s acoustic guitar. Whether it’s his lead or rhythm work, you hear it all. The guitar is all string and wood. The initial attack of Lee’s fingers on the strings is so startlingly clear that, if you’re not careful, you’ll miss the overtones and decay of each note. I’ve rarely heard a guitar this well recorded, and almost never on CD. Kudos, Pierre.

Oh yeah, he nailed the vocals too.

So, just who is Al Lee? Does it really matter? Isn’t it enough that he’s a musician, songwriter, and guitar player? Ain’t Playing The Game is a testament to those skills and more. This is a truly original album, superbly played and recorded.