Most people only know supergroup Mr. Big for their international mega-hit "To Be With You", which would be a bit like only knowing… Well, I can't be bothered to think of a decent analogy right now but Mr. Big aren't just purveyors of sappy acoustic ballads. There are two sides to Mr. Big: on the one hand you have your radio friendly AOR band with top 40 hits and a generally inoffensive appeal. On the other you have a hard rock musicians' band with staggering virtuoso instrumental breaks and storming live performances. This side of things had made them ridiculously popular in Japan, where their farewell live album released this year was also offered as a strictly limited edition run of… 100,000 copies. Yikes!
Yes, I did say "farewell" live album, which is sad, but really Mr. Big weren't as good from the moment they replaced wacky and witty axe master Paul Gilbert with the equally capable but much less likeable Richie Kotzen (ex-Poison). It is fitting, however, that they've said goodbye with a live album. AOR hits they may have had, but it was the loud and technically jaw-dropping live performances that really defined the band. I haven't got Live in Japan and previous Mr. Big live albums (for there have been many) are impossible to find for a reasonable price, but their live recordings featured as B-sides on singles have never been anything less than awesome, from the perfectly executed backing vocals to the shredding performances from the band. In case you haven't got the message yet, Mr Big are a superlative musicians' band; both individually and as a band you won't find a finer collection of musicians anywhere. When you do find one that comes close, it will probably be Dream Theater but really… Dream Theater are self indulgent prog rock boredom-inducers with nothing like Mr. Big's flair for writing a pop hit single. I know Dream Theater fans will tell you they are above writing pop singles and that Dream Theater's epic creations are far beyond the world of pop (all Dream Theater fans will describe pop music with the strongest derogatory language). These fans are wrong though; there's far more skill and craft involved in writing a hit than in writing a 5 minute guitar solo. Mr. Big can do both.
Musically, I guess they are most similar to Sammy Hagar's Van Halen; song based melodic rock with some great musicianship. Technically, Paul Gilbert (formerly of Racer X) is probably even more accomplished than Eddie, all though obviously not as creative or innovative. In the rhythm section, former David Lee Roth/ Talas man Billy Sheehan is phenomenal. It's not just that he has the technical ability of a, well, a Billy Sheehan. Many one guitar bands can sound very thin and wussy when the guitarist takes a solo because with no second guitarist to carry on the riff, there is very little harmony or instrumentation to fill out the arrangement. Billy Sheehan totally negates the need for a second guitarist though… when Gilbert takes a solo Sheehan fills the space in the mix effortlessly. Drummer Pat Torpey hardly disgraces the band either, the former Robert Plant tubthumper filling out the line-up along with the soulful, gritty pipes of Eric Martin.
Yikes, that got dangerously close to a biography there. Well I would debate Paul Gilbert vs. Richie Kotzen, but what's to debate? On the one hand you have one of the coolest guys, guitarists and singers around, and on the other you have a guy who has no doubt great vocal and guitar ability, but, lest we forget, was ejected from Poison for sleeping with Rikki Rockett's wife and then taking her out as his girlfriend on a Poison tour. Who'd you have in your band?
I think that their live capabilities are the most notable thing about Mr Big. They are tight yet raw, everything spot-on perfect yet with the right amount of spontaneity and jamming -- everything you'd hope for from a band like Mr. Big, in fact. It's their live performances that built their reputation, and why they've still had a solid cult status long since their singles stopped making the American and European charts.
Best album: Well it was mostly "To Be With You" that took Lean Into It to platinum status, although "Green-Tinted Sixties' Mind" and "Just Take My Heart" were also hits. As it happens, though, the rest of the album has the strength to back it up, filled as it is with memorable rock songs. Bump Ahead was another strong collection though and had its own acoustic ballad hit in the shape of "Wild World". Hey Man's the only real dud in their collection… an abysmal collection of dirges with "Take Cover" emerging as the only standout, although "Goin' Where the Wind Blows" is yet another good acoustic ballad. With monumental effort and concentration I did once manage to enjoy listening to Hey Man but it was a trick I have not been able to repeat. I'll stick with Lean Into It as their best moment, and most who know would agree.
Official website: www.mrbigsite.com
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