February 2003

The Hellecasters - Essential Listening Volume 1
HighTone CD-HCD8146
Released: 2002

by Joseph Taylor

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

Reading the resumes of the three guitarists who are the Hellecasters is enough to make any guitar player envious. John Jorgenson, Jerry Donahue, and Will Ray have played with everyone, it seems. Their collective CV includes the Desert Rose Band (Jorgenson was a co-founder), Fairport Convention (Donahue replaced Richard Thompson) and Thomas Dolby (I threw that one in to surprise you -- Ray also played with Carlene Carter and Solomon Burke, to name just two others). And that barely scratches the surface. These guys have played with so many musicians and in such varied styles that they’ve developed killer chops in almost every musical genre.

Jorgenson, Donahue, and Ray debuted as the Hellecasters in the early '90s at a weekly get-together for local musicians at Hollywood’s Palomino Club. They had worked up some numbers that allowed them to play in close harmony and then branch off into solos. Those outings were such a success that they recorded three discs when they could find time in their busy schedules: Return of the Hellecasters (1993), Escape from Hollywood (1995), and Hell III: Axes to Grind. HighTone Records compiled Essential Listening Volume 1 from those three discs and added two previously unreleased and one hard-to-find track.

Anyone familiar with the dual-guitar sound of Southern rock bands from the '70s will have some idea of what to expect from many of the tunes on this disc. Another antecedent is the pull-out-the-stops rave-ups of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. The tunes on Essential Listening Volume 1 allow the guitarists to show different facets of their playing styles, from country and blues to the melodic heavy metal of guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. No single player dominates the disc, and each gets a solo shot or two in nearly every tune.

There’s a lot of guitar coming at you for this disc’s 56 minutes, but it only occasionally becomes a monster guitar rally. The Hellecasters avoid repetition in their songwriting and they balance the pace of the disc by offering both full-out burning and slower, more considered playing. "Back On Terra Firma" spotlights Jorgenson and he deftly combines Jeff Beck-style aggressiveness with quieter passages that pay homage to Mark Knopfler. These were guitar show-off sessions, but because the players have exceptional skills and a strong feel for melody, they only descend into noodling in a few brief spots.

The other musicians on this disc offer firm support while staying out of the way of the main players. According to the Hellecasters’ website (www.hellecasters.com) "…Bob Stone, famous for engineering the lion's share of Frank Zappa's 60+ albums, did an outstanding job in sonically aligning the collection…." The disc does have a consistent sonic character and it is intelligently sequenced. The only dull spot is a cover of "Little Miss Strange" -- if you’re going to do a Hendrix tune, why choose one written by Noel Redding? This is a disc that a guitarist is bound to like, but anyone who enjoys music that is brilliantly played by musicians who are having a blast doing what they love should enjoy it as well.