Friday, May 1, 2020

JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE "Once Bitten Acoustic Bytes"

(c) 2020 Deadline Records

  1. Lady Redlight
  2. Gonna Getcha
  3. Rock Me
  4. All Over Now
  5. Mistreater
  6. Never Change Heart
  7. Fast Road
  8. Livin' On The Edge
  9. Save Your Love
  10. Babe (I'm Gonna Leave You)
Jack Russell--Lead Vocals
Robby Lochner--Guitars, Vocals
Tony Montana Cardenas--Guitars, Vocals
Dan McNay--Bass
Dicki Flisnar-Drums

Where does the time go?  I mean, seriously, how has it been 33 years since Once Bitten was released (or 32 years since it went Platinum for selling over a million copies)?  We danced to "Save Your Love" at my senior prom, for crying out loud!  And while I realize that I am dating myself with that last statement, it also serves to enhance my original question, which we all ask as we get older.  Where does the time go?

Now, I am fully aware of the fact that more people are familiar with Once Bitten's follow-up, ...Twice Shy, due almost solely to that record's cover of "Once Bitten, Twice Shy", but I will be the first to tell you that Once Bitten is the superior record, overall.  The breakthrough track, "Rock Me", is still one of the biggest and most requested songs the band has ever recorded, and the enormity of "Save Your Love" is indisputable, as it is one of the biggest power ballads of that time.  But, man, that record had so many great...GREAT...songs.  "Lady Redlight", "All Over Now", "On The Edge", and even deep cuts that only the most devoted fans likely know, such as "Fast Road" and "Never Change Heart" were solid tracks.  Outside of Hooked, Once Bitten is my favorite Great White record, followed closely by Shot In The Dark (my intro to the band), and the self-titled debut, with numerous other really good records following in the wake.  So, when Robby Lochner told me a couple years ago that Jack's version of the band (don't get me started down THAT road) was going to do an acoustic rendering of Once Bitten, I was definitely more than intrigued...and a little bit concerned.  I mean, let's be honest; the acoustic thing has been played out a bit, and quite frequently with tired, lifeless results.  So I had my reservations.  And when the release of the record was delayed by nearly a year (it was originally supposed to come out in July, 2019), I had some very real concerns.

Turns out, I was sweating it out about nothing.

Once Bitten Acoustic Bytes is the first release from Jack Russell's Great White since 2017's He Saw It Coming, and it is not only an acoustic record, it is a track-for-track remaking of the classic Once Bitten album, played in the exact same sequence.  To me, this is a huge point being made by the band, because so often, these acoustic albums become simply "best of" records, even when implying something different (ahem...Foreigner).  With Once Bitten Acoustic Bytes, you get the entire album, start to finish, in the same order that you first experienced it (unless you had the British version and ended up with the bizarre mish-mash of Once Bitten and Shot In The Dark tracks, or the international version which had "Rock Me" on side two, and both "Fast Road" and "Mistreater" on side one.  But...I doubt you had those...)

The new record, of course, kicks off with "Lady Redlight", and immediately the listener should know they are in for a treat.  As soon as Lochner starts fast-picking his way through that intro...but now on an acoustic is obvious this is not going to be an album where the band just coasts along and hits the high points of the hits.  The bass is thick here and sets a nice bottom end groove, and the cool shuffle that the original had shows up in full effect here.  Jack soon comes gliding in, and the man is in top form from note one.  I have seen Great White in various line-up formations, both electric and acoustic, so many times I can't even count.  And to be honest, there have been a few shows where Jack wasn't in the best vocal form, for whatever reason.  That is absolutely not the case here!  Jack sounds fresh and inspired here, and the man soars to the highest peaks of this track with seemingly little effort, and I would be lying if I didn't admit to being impressed.  The backing vocals are light and simple, as they should be, only serving to add bits of enhancement to the lead vocals of one of the most underrated singers in the genre.            

"Gonna Getcha" has a good deal of punch to the bottom end, with more fast and furious finger work from Lochner all over the place on this track.  Jack's vocals nail the urgency and swagger of the track, and little inflections and improvisations here and there really add a live flair to the track, which actually happens in several places throughout the record.  The solo section is really cool, because the support instruments back way off to just a simple drum and bass line supporting Lochner's run that feels off-the-cuff fresh in the way he works it.  The rhythm guitar line is tight and the bass is full in this reworking of a track that I wish would get dusted off more in the live setting. 

One thing I really like here is the reworking of the classic tracks so that you aren't just getting the same old, same old minus the electricity.  This is especially evident on a track like "Rock Me", which is given a cool, bluesy feel with a big, rumbling bass line and some fun guitar rhythms, particularly in the chorus sections. The guitar solo that runs out the song is really something to hear, with some impressive intensity and fast, clean picking.  Jack sings the whole thing about half a step lower in octave than the original, and this is done solely for effect, as he proves throughout the record that he is more than capable of climbing the ladder to hit the high notes when he needs to.  The backing vocals are a bit subdued...intentionally so...and they are harmonized perfectly.  It should also be mentioned that Flisnar's drums are rock solid throughout the track (and record), which can be tricky when the drummer is kind of limited in what he can add to an acoustic track without overpowering the song.  Really cool stuff, here.

"All Over Now" is still sharp and sassy in the acoustic version, but it breathes a bit more, as you might expect.  Jack adds a snarling edge to his vocals in the verse sections, and the backing vocals on the verses are done very well.  The chorus is pretty much spot-on, as well, and I am really glad they kept the chorus the same as it is on record here, rather than the slightly altered approach taken when the song is done live sometimes.  There's no cowbell here, but there is some wood block thrown into the percussive mix here, which gives a bit more of an organic feel to the track.  Lochner tears through a rapid fire pick-fest of a solo here, with Jack encouraging him, "C'mon Robby, need little bit more!" about half way through, which only encourages the guy to do his best shred impersonation on acoustic strings.  Color me impressed!

"Mistreater" is given a heavy dose of the blues, especially with a brand new intro and some fast and furious picking in the chorus sections, along with a cool little run from the drums coming out of the choruses.  This is a perfect example of taking a song fans will be familiar with and giving it a musical makeover, respecting the original but having some fun and flexing some creative muscle in changing things up a bit.  The guitar solo here is awesome, once again featuring some really fast picking from Lochner, and there's a nice piano accompaniment from Cardenas (Montana) coming out of the solo section that leads into the final run through the chorus.  The guitar work throughout this song is simply amazing to hear, and Jack is very obviously having a blast with this Great White classic.

For me, one of the coolest parts about this total reworking of Once Bitten is that the album cuts get new life here.  Very few people could sing the lyrics to "Never Change Heart" or "Fast Road", but the band delivers on each of these as if they were the biggest songs the band has ever released.  "Never Change Heart", for example, is given a deep, dark groove for the rest of the song to work around, and Jack's clean, impassioned vocals stand out starkly against the backdrop.  There is one point where Jack's voice cracks ever so slightly in the first chorus, but rather than edit it out, the band just carries on and the "real" feel of the track is left intact.  I love this!  There's no need to carve out a single cracked word; this is what gives this album such a live feel.  To be honest, I expected applause to cascade over the outros of these songs, as the record really has a live setting feel throughout.  Fingers are flying on the solo here, once again, and forgive me if this offends, but I truly don't know if Mark Kendall could pull off the acoustic solos that Lochner drops here.  The man is a truly underappreciated talent, and this stripped down format only serves to prove that point more fully.

As far as the previously mentioned "Fast Road" goes, it's really more of the same as far as quality goes.  If you aren't familiar with the original, this is a pretty uptempo track in its original form, but I daresay it may be a bit faster here.  The music has a really cool chugging train feel to it, reminding me a lot of the bluegrass breakdowns you hear in some of the faster music of that genre, but we don't venture into that type of instrumentation.  The backing vocals here are spot-on, and Jack absolutely dominates the higher end of his range, holding out notes for long stretches with seemingly little effort.  The chugga-chugga-chug of the bass line is a really powerful driving force in this song, and the guitar solo is catchy and inventive.

"Living On The Edge" has long been one of my favorite tracks by Great White, and it is given new life...and new appreciation from this acoustic setting.  Longtime, hardcore fans will likely notice the title change (I did), as the original doesn't have the word "Living" in it.  I asked Robby about this, and he said it was just a minor oversight and nothing that was done intentionally.  No biggie, as it is the music that matters, and it is done exceptionally well.  The bass line is thick, the drums are simple and straight forward, but still powerful, and the guitars are absolutely magnificent.  I really don't know what other word to use.  There is a rhythm guitar line running in the background that will likely remind the listener of the rhythm line used in Stevie Nicks' "Edge Of Seventeen", which is pretty cool, and I would imagine hard to maintain for a long stretch.  The handclaps that are added into the percussion mix here are a nice touch, adding a new quality to this classic track.  While it was never released as a single, I always felt it should have been, as it showcases what Great White did so well at that time, and the song is just catchy as heck. Once again, Jack completely owns the song, moving up and down his range with no problems and sounding fresh and powerful.  Maybe my favorite track here, although "Never Change Heart" is close.

As far as favorites go, a lot of people are likely to skip straight to the massive "Save Your Love", just to see how this track is handled.  In a word, it is handled "perfectly"  Jack doesn't miss a single note, delivering all the power and passion to this track that you have likely heard when the band performs this song live.  The bass is once again a very prominent part of this track, but outside of Jack's dominance, it has to be the amazing guitar solo from Lochner that is the focal point here.  He absolutely nails the solo here, delivering it as passionately as Jack does the vocals.  I probably still prefer the original, just because it is such an iconic track for the band, but man...this version does the song major service.  Absolutely exceptional work here.          

The album concludes with a bonus track in "Babe (I'm Gonna Leave You)", which has appeared on a couple of Great White albums and compilations through the years.  But, true to the record, even that classic Led Zeppelin cover has been completely re-recorded in acoustic fashion...and Jack has never sounded better.  In fact, his take on Robert Plant at this point is as good as I have ever heard, including on the Great White record, Great Zeppelin: A Tribute To Led Zeppelin.  The song is well-suited to be performed acoustically, I believe, and the band does not disappoint.  The acoustic guitars here are played to near perfection, and the percussion fits exceptionally well, not overpowering the quieter voices of the acoustic instruments, but delivering enough power to really push the song.  The big build moments are handled expertly, especially in the big section following the second chorus.  I asked Robby why this track was included, since it wasn't even a B-side or anything for this record.  He told me the record label had requested multiple bonus tracks, but the band gave them one.  And they gave them one helluva great one.  This may honestly be my favorite version of this track, and I simply can't say enough about how great Jack...and the entire band...sound on this cover.  It's a perfect close to an excellent record.

Produced and mixed by Lochner, the sound on this record is incredibly crisp and clean, with no annoying string squeaks from the guitars, and no instrument left silent in the mix.  The artwork is relatively simple, and has absolutely nothing to do with the original cover, but I think that's fine.  Besides, it looks better with the band's names scrawled all over it, don't you think?  There are no band photos or lyircs included in the tri-fold booklet, just a large thank-you section from each of the band members.

I have stated several times in many places that to me, this is the definitive version of the band, with Jack's voice being what drew so many people to Great White in the first place.  Robby Lochner is every bit the guitar player Mark Kendall was, and as I stated before, I think he pulls off work here that Mark couldn't even dream of playing today.  The rhythm section of McNay and Flisnar is rock solid, and Tony Montana's return solidified the line-up on rhythm guitars and keys, giving Jack Russell's Great White the truest sounding version of this splintered group, with Mark Kendall's version changing vocalists multiple times and, to be honest, coming off as rather tired-sounding and uninspired on their last effort, the relatively un-Great White Full Circle.  To compare the musicality of Jack Russell's Great White versus (Mark Kendall's) Great White is really not even a fair fight, as Jack's version is going to win every time.  Once Bitten Acoustic Bytes absolutely proves this point in spades.

Snag your own copy HERE and give this awesome album a listen with a new ear!  Now, while you do that, I need to transfer mine to a new jewel case (thank you post office!).

Rating:  Acoustically crankable!  I find practically zero flaws in this acoustic gem!  Crank this to 9.5!

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