Strong as an Ox

by Ryan Snyder

It’s been said ad infinitum: X band will never be as good without Y player. It’s a constant, particularly among classic rockists, that the greatest acts of yore are better left to career retrospectives boxed with never-beforeseen photos and knobbish liner notes from their most affected musical progeny. The Who were especially vulnerable to such reproaches because they came twofold: first following the death of their heart and soul in Keith Moon, and then 24 years later with the passing of the rock upon which they wailed, bassist John Entwistle. Despite retaining their two most famous members in Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, there’s a case that the Who are an ironic exception to the litany of punch lines that diminish the rhythm section’s importance in rock.

The other side of that argument rests on the man whom they deputized almost immediately following the death of Entwistle. One player can claim a resume that began with him being as omnipresent in the ’80s as Galaga and JR Ewing, becoming tapped as the go-to guy for dad-rock and teen-pop session gigs alike in the ’90s, and ultimately laying out the groove for the two most important R&B albums of the 21st century. That player is Pino Palladino, and anyone who’s turned on a radio in the last 30 years has almost assuredly heard his lean, ultra-kinetic, fretless bass sound, but hardly anyone could pick him out of a crowd.

That’s because Palladino, like the Who’s own Ox, channels his dynamism through his fingers and not his physical presence. The lanky Welsh-born bassist has carved out a rather enviable niche as the truest essence of the bass player’s bass player: always neck deep in the pocket, preferring sinewy, slightly offbeat basslines over grandstanding solos. His style has spun off a discography that includes some of the most successful recordings of the last three decades, while he’s often credited with breaking the fretless bass into pop music, first on Gary Numan’s I, Assassin and then, more significantly, on David Gilmour’s underrated post- Floyd offering About Face and Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill.”

But Palladino’s most profound impact has come in the last 13 years, beginning with his work on D’Angelo’s 2000 R&B classic Voodoo where his newly adopted defiant approach to harmonics resulted in a work that many would seek to emulate. Since then, he’s created grooves for a huge swathe of hip-hop and R&B stars, including Erykah Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton and his most admired project, Adele’s 21. It’s rumored that new Who material is on the way with Palladino bearing the full bass load, but even that may not outstrip the potential of D’Angelo’s forthcoming album James River, in which Palladino will share rhythmic duties with the legendary drummer James Gadson.

The Who come to the Greensboro Coliseum this Friday featuring Pino Palladino on bass.

Essential listening: Selected works featuring Pino Palladino Freur — Doot Doot (1983) The second band of the duo that would eventually become UK EDM legends Underworld imagined a romantic album that was atmospheric in its menace, and Palladino’s lissome groove on “Theme from the Film of the Same Name” was the perfect distillation of both ideals.

Paul Young — The Secret of Association (1985) His playing on Young’s cover of Daryl Hall’s “Every Time You Go Away” provides the emotional counterbalance, but listen to “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” for fills so fluid they seem to melt into the song.

Phil Collins — …But Seriously (1989) Palladino had just concluded work on Eric Clapton’s Journeyman when Phil Collins asked Clapton to play guitar for the bluesy “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” and Clapton had just the guy for the song’s effusive bass line.

Melissa Etheridge — Yes I Am (1993) Etheridge’s hit “I’m the Only One” marked a notch up in aggression for Palladino; he traded his trademark liquid groove for terse ones and fives that would earn him a spot by her side on future recordings.

D’Angelo — Voodoo (2000) Though it didn’t quite approach the runaway success of Adele’s 21, Voodoo was a landmark on many levels. So much of it was improvisation with a loosely constructed framework underneath. D’Angelo trusted his players with it, however, and that it worked so remarkably well is a credit to them.