The moment arrives, like rock & roll clockwork, on nearly every cut on Premonition. Throughout John Fogerty’s first live album, he and his band will complete a chorus to either a Creedence Clearwater Revival standard or a song from one of his solo albums. Then, after a pause, a note or two from Fogerty’s guitar jabs out of the speakers. Then come a few more, and a few more — fluid tones, craggy squawks, a bit of sirenlike feedback. The flurry can last up to three minutes.
For those who still revel in the art of the air guitar — and you know who you are — Premonition is manna from rock heaven. But is it the last of a dying breed? The passing of Frank Sinatra inspired much talk about finales — the end of an era, a century, and a style of pop vocalizing. But maybe it’s time to start mourning the close of another vital, long-standing piece of musical history: the guitar solo.
For what seemed like eternity, the guitar break was as much a part of the rock experience as groupies. Then came alternative rock. Ever play air guitar to Nirvana? Probably not. Although many early alt-rock bands had heavy-wailing guitarists, few opted for the long, wanky instrumental passages of rock yore. Part of it had to do with the genre’s roots in punk, never a showcase for instrumental virtuosity, and part of it was a reaction to the empty flash of ’80s hair metal. But by 1990 or so, the idea of the guitar solo — a musician standing in front of the stage, putting his or her very soul into every note — started to feel indulgent and look, well, sort of ridiculous.
The alt-rock revolution may be over, but its impact lives on. Although he fronts the nation’s leading jam band, Dave Matthews mostly strums his way through Before These Crowded Streets; on the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore, anti-guitar hero Billy Corgan devotes as much time to his piano as he does to his six-string. Their elders, either out of creative boredom or because of advancing age, seem to be following their examples. On their latest albums, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page opt for textures and chords over fret-burning passages. Eddie Van Halen dusted off the whammy-bar screech on Van Halen III. But look what that (and faceless new singer Gary Cherone) got him: the band’s biggest flop.
The guitar solo is, in one regard, just another victim of pop in the late ’90s, a time when samples and computers are providing more room for innovation than old-fangled manual instruments. But other factors are at work. Thanks to the heightened role of women in music, the six-string show-off now seems even more obnoxiously male than ever. (The Lilith crowd chopped down the phallic reign of the guitar solo like a musical Lorena Bobbitt.) The guitar solo has become culturally incorrect. That may not be such a bad thing, either: Consider preternatural blues codgers Jonny Lang or Kenny Wayne Shepherd, both of whom suffer from the dreaded ”guitar face.”
All of which makes an album like Fogerty’s Premonition seem like a more fascinating document than it often is. Recorded before an enthusiastic crowd of L.A. cheerleaders, the album — with its precise re-creations of lateperiod hits like ”Centerfield” and the Creedence classics that for years Fogerty refused to perform — is clearly conceived to replicate the success of Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance. (It won’t, because even though Fogerty’s tunes have tremendous nostalgic appeal for boomers, Mac’s intertwining of music and personal lives allows its audience to connect with, and relate to, them in a more deeply emotional way. Tellingly, the only love song on Premonition, ”Joy of My Life,” comes from Fogerty’s Blue Moon Swamp, released just last year.) Fogerty’s voice is as rugged and eternal as the material, and it’s hard to fault any recording that includes ”Who’ll Stop the Rain” and ”Fortunate Son.” But these versions don’t add much to the original recordings, and the band’s thin, wimpy harmonies seriously undermine the power of ”Proud Mary” and ”Almost Saturday Night.”
At such moments, Fogerty has almost no choice but to crank up another of his terse, economical guitar breaks. Something has to juice the music besides the pounding syncopations of drummer Kenny Aronoff. By the time it ends, Premonition becomes more than a concert recording by a veteran rock act. It’s an elegy for a white male-dominated era of pop, an epoch that’s starting to feel as distant as the guitar solo itself. B
John Fogerty Premonition REPRISE