When I was a teenager, I thought Billy Sheehan was from another planet.
Sneaking into bars in the Albany area to see his Buffalo-based band Talas was a delight, a temporary window into another world -- where I didn't have acne, girls wouldn't break my eager and undefended heart and the hours spent playing guitar in my bedroom and friends' basements weren't for naught.
It was magic, and Sheehan was Merlin, a bass player with chops, attitude, style and finesse galore. Looking back now, it was all occasionally overkill, a shred fest, but it certainly didn't seem so at the time. It seemed, rather, elegant and refined and cooler than I'd ever manage to be.
So much has changed since then. Talas is no more; Sheehan went on to play in David Lee Roth's first post-Van Halen band, then bathed in the success of Mr. Big and the fluke international pop hit "To Be With You." In the mid-'90s, he formed Hammond Organ trio Niacin. All water under the bridge, but some things remain unchanged: Sheehan is still a virtuoso bass player, albeit a more refined, understated one, and he still is one of the more humble souls you'll stumble upon in the sordid and vainglorious world of rock 'n' roll. He's from Kenmore, after all.
Now Sheehan has released his second solo album proper, in the form of "Cosmic Troubadour," a record on which he handles all of the vocals, baritone electric guitars and bass-playing himself, with only drummer Ray Luzier for company. It should surprise Sheehan fans, if only because, unlike so many first-time vocalists (or second-time, actually; Sheehan made his lead vocal debut on his first solo album, "Compression," released in 2002) Sheehan is an accomplished vocalist who sings with soul and conviction. The bass-playing that made Sheehan an international superstar is in evidence here, but it takes a back seat to the songwriting and the performances, which are inspired and variegated.
"It was never some great passion of mine to make a solo record," says Sheehan, speaking by phone from a stop on the Steve Vai tour, which comes Monday to the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts. "I've always been a band guy, you know? It's always been about bands for me; none of this, 'Gee, if I could only lose the dead weight in my band and kick off a glorious solo career, I'd have it made,' which is what you hear some people say. But I bought a baritone guitar a while back, and I started writing on it and singing, and eventually, I felt confident enough to give it a go on my own."
Sheehan isn't exaggerating when he says he has always been a "band guy." Though his playing has long been technically adventurous, it's pretty much impossible to cite an example of Sheehan swinging for the fences rather than playing for the song. That's why it's not surprising to note that the bassist, fresh on the heels of the "Cosmic Troubadour" release, has opted not for a solo tour, but for a one-year, worldwide commitment to back up his old friend Vai.
"It's Steve's show, no doubt about it," Sheehan says. "And I'm very comfortable with that. I enjoy finding my own way to support what it is he's doing. It's very rewarding, and Steve is very giving, both as a musician and a friend. There's not a whole lot of ego floating around here, just some musicians who are friends working together to serve the song."
Though Sheehan has won just about every musician's poll imaginable and commands a large and loyal following, he says that praise from fans still humbles him.
"The thing is, I concentrate on the things I can't do yet. I don't think about the things I've already done all that often, because I'm trying to push forward into new ground. So when a fan says something nice, or mentions that what I've done inspired them in some way -- whether it was to pick up a guitar, or just find something in the music that spoke to them -- I'm truly humbled by it. Every night before we go out on stage with Steve, we huddle backstage to sort of get our heads in the same place, and we always say how lucky we are to be able to go out and play music that we love for people who have come out on any given night just to dig it.
"I mean, how can you forget that? To be able to do what you love and make a living at it is a tremendous blessing, and it's not something I take for granted."
Sheehan laughs when I remind him of those Talas days, when the band would offer up sweat-soaked, three-hour performances to wide-eyed kids and seasoned pros alike, with an intensity that seemed to border on mania. It was all good practice, he says, for the tough road that lay ahead. And the singularity of purpose evident during those shows is something that Sheehan says has served him well over the course of the 20-odd years since.
"I think it's pretty important to know what you want and to go for it whole hog," he says. "I left Kenmore East my senior year to concentrate full time on music -- not that I recommend that to anyone else or want to be a negative influence at all. But I knew what I wanted, and I knew how much hard work and luck it was going to take to get it. I still feel the same way, really. It still takes a lot of hard work. And you still have to really want it in order to pull it off."
Steve Vai and his band, with bassist Billy Sheehan, perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday in UB's Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst. Tickets are $29 (box office, Ticketmaster). Call 645-ARTS for more info.
Sheehan's "Cosmic Troubadour" is out now on Favored Nations Entertainment. Check www.billysheehan.com.