Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Review: Aerosmith, "1971: The Road Starts Hear"

As a young boy, I was introduced to Aerosmith by my teenage aunt as we rode the backroads jamming to songs like “Walk this Way” and “Sweet Emotion.” I forgot about them for a few years, until their resurgence in the mid-1980s, at which point I went back to explore their ‘70s work and discovered that I already knew most of it.

Aerosmith was, and remains, one of the two most important musical acts in my life, along with Black Sabbath. I was obsessed with the band for many years, so obsessed in fact that my friends in high school knew that if I was a few minutes late to class, it probably meant that an Aerosmith video had come on MTV at the time that I should have been leaving in the morning, and I had delayed my departure to watch it. I sang the praises of Aerosmith until my friends were sick of hearing it and would insult the band just to get me to shut up and leave. The ‘70s version of the band was just so damned cool, though.

They’re still so damned cool. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m also a big fan of their three 1980s records following the original lineup’s reunion. After that, well, things get very spotty and there are some moments that we just shouldn’t mention – including, sadly, their only No. 1 hit.

I was excited when the band announced last year that they had discovered a rehearsal recording from 1971, a couple of years before Aerosmith’s self-titled debut was released. That record remains my second favorite, next to 1976’s Rocks, which is just a perfect hard-rock album in my opinion. I was eager to hear these early versions of some of my favorite songs.

Finally, The Road Starts Hear has arrived, and it doesn’t disappoint. The first thing you’ll notice when pushing play on this album is that the sound is quite a bit different than what we got in 1973. The performances on this album are far more rootsy and stripped back than what the songs became on the debut album. There’s a lot less crunch, but still plenty of grit and grime.

The difference is most notable on “Mama Kin,” which closes the album. The song is a certified hard-rock classic, but it’s quite a bit different here. That instantly recognizable slashing opening riff from Joe Perry is instead strummed on a clean guitar, which gives it more of a ‘60s blues-rock flavor. Steven Tyler’s attitude is also dialed down and not as in your face as the version of the song that we’re familiar with.

Being the hard rocker that I am, I prefer the 1973 version, but this one’s not bad either, and it’s interesting to see how the song and sound developed over the course of the next year or so before they recorded it.

“Dream On” also has quite a different flavor on The Road Starts Hear. It’s less of a departure from the hit version, but the piano is far more prominent here than on the studio track. Tyler’s vocals are also a little more raw and emotional, which really works well for the song. We learn, too, that the lyrics evolved over the months before they recorded the final version, as this one has an alternate take of the second verse.

They throw in a nice Beatles-esque build with the piano at the end of “Dream On” here that was cut as well. I actually like this version a lot, though. It lacks the polish, but I kind of feel like I’m hearing them in a dive bar somewhere as they developed the song.

That brings me to one of my absolute favorite Aerosmith songs, “Movin’ Out.” The version on The Road Starts Hear is actually not very different from the one that made the album. There’s a little less crunch in the guitars, Tyler’s vocal delivery is maybe a little more reserved in places (when he’s not delivering Jim Morrison-like screams away from the mic), and the band gets a little more jammy in the middle.

Where The Road Starts Hear really shines, though, are in the two blues covers – the Buster Bennett Trio’s “Reefer Head Woman” and Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog.”

“Walkin’ the Dog” would make the 1973 debut with a slightly faster tempo and a lot more polish than the raw performance on this recording. The basics of the studio version are here, but it’s much more laid back, with Aerosmith dropping into another jam band-style groove in the middle, and Joe Perry piping in some psychedelic licks.

There’s also a strange performance from maybe a recorder during that section. Sorry, I’m not familiar enough with the sound of wind instruments to say for sure, but it’s odd. Again, Steven Tyler puts more grit and growl into the vocals, showing signs of what he would become when he later embraced all of his frontman excess.

“Reefer Head Woman” was a live staple for the band and would later be recorded for 1979’s Night in the Ruts album. The stripped-down nature of this recording really serves the song well. It’s the absolute best performance on the record for both Perry and Tyler and by far the most clean and polished piece on The Road Starts Hear.

Tyler cranks up the attitude and soul like nowhere else on the record, and it gives Perry a platform for some tasty classic blues licks with just a bit of rock attitude. It sounds far more authentic, and I like it much better than the eventual recorded version. “Reefer Head Woman” alone is worth the price of admission.

I have to acknowledge that Aerosmith has disappointed me far more often than not over the past three decades – but there aren’t many, if any, bands that can touch their attitude and energy in the 1970s. The band isn’t quite the blues-rock force in this rehearsal that they would become over the next few years, but it’s still a solid performance. This is a nice little piece of history and a rare glimpse into the group’s roots and evolution.

It takes me back a lot of years to the time when an Aerosmith song was enough to make me late for school and refreshes my memory about just how much love I had for the band. It’s refreshing to hear this version of the band without the glitz and glam that they became known for later on. A couple of these songs will definitely make the regular rotation alongside the Aerosmith classics that are already mainstays of my listening.

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