Heepster 1995 & Gunhill 1997 / Cherry Red 2016
Sympathy that does mean much: ex-URIAH HEEP belter mixes originals with covers refracted through the prism of his own.
John Lawton occupies quite a unique position on a musical landscape as a rare performer who could, at the same time and with same abandon, sculpt heavy prog with LUCIFER’S FRIEND and schmaltzy pop as part of LES HUMPHRIES SINGERS, although his versatility got overshadowed by hard rock credentials as HEEP frontman. It took the barren land of the ’90s for the veteran to return to this kind of stylistic melange with GUNHILL as a vehicle for live presentation of what could pull audience from beyond the singer’s existing fan base by presenting choice numbers without ruining the artist’s integrity. For these two albums, it worked; thankfully, it didn’t become a rut for him, and John managed to move on to new creative pastures.
Taken to the studio, “One Over The Eight” was basically a rather rough, low-key reflection of the group’s concert repertoire, aimed strictly at Lawton aficionados, while “Nightheat” showed a more refined, album-oriented way towards further development, as demonstrated by a dramatic, riffs-laden take on “Eleanor Rigby” on each of the albums. This is one of a few unexpected, and most alluring, selections here, another gem being “Nobody Loves You The Way I Do” that John transferred from Melissa Etheridge onto a more colorful canvas; yet something that’s always been obvious about Lawton, but wasn’t often manifested on albums John contributed to, is a soulfulness of his delivery. The more welcome, then, are the Englishman’s reading of “When A Man Loves A Woman” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” – with hefty splashes outlining the iron-in-a-velvet quality of his vocals – and the same approach is applied to a new rendition of his trademark “Sympathy” which makes a bonus here, whereas a blast from the less distant past comes in the form of “Don’t Look Back” which, in such a case, was a good advice.
The closer John’s voice is to that of a piece’s original singer, as it is on “Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues” with David Coverdale ghost hanging over the groove, the less interesting a result is; the greater the distinction, the more alluring it gets, no matter how similar are the arrangements, and there’s no better illustration to this than “Stone Cold” where Joe Lynn Turner‘s spirit is replaced with something more sensual. Yet it’s the small tweaks that allow Lawton own a song the way he does with “Better By You Better Than Me” and “Ready For Love” which had been brought into a new era and enhanced with an electrically shredded or acoustically laced guitar vignette.
No cover, though, is in league with the band’s own creations, a handful of them, given the KISS-like catchiness of “Can’t Get Enough” or “Soldier Of Love” whose very titles play games with a classic rock lover’s head, and the AOR-ability of “Don’t Stop Believing” to overshadow its namesake. An addition of “River Of Dreams” to this collection merits a special mention as the song composed by Heepsters, GUNHILL’s initial audience, that ended up performed by one of their heroes: a dream come true. For John Lawton, though, it’s still very much on.