Quarto Valley 2018
Rolling back five decades, British blues-rock mover brings heavy load into the ring to make it easy on his soul.
Probably the most significant boy band in history, FREE’s lifespan was short yet their influence on other artists has been immense, and they cast a shadow Paul Rodgers is bound to walk in forever, no matter how the singer tried to create a different context for his music. Still, the band’s 50th anniversary let the veteran temporarily set aside such attempts and surrender to popular demand with regards to his repertoire – the demand so high that the “Free Spirit” tour peaked with a show at the Royal Albert Hall, captured on this audio-and-video album in all its flawed glory. Touching on each of the ensemble’s albums, Paul delivers an impressive performance but, as far as the evoking of past specters is concerned, the entire enterprise may seem a little bit strange, given it’s Rodgers’ solo endeavor where the presence of his colleague Simon Kirke could give the concert trek much more gravity. Still, the vocalist’s magnetism is irresistible, with classic cuts brought into the light to shine anew.
Paul doesn’t limit his 16-piece display to obvious choices, and the appearance of “Magic Ship” in the middle of the evening feels entrancing – a pleasant present for genuine aficionados – while “Catch A Train” makes a perfect, if unexpected, finale to the 120-minute run, although all-too-familiar material like “Mr. Big” sounds fresh, too. There’s gracefully restrained swagger on “Woman” that’s fleshed out with organ now to elevate the number’s emotional abandon before abating to render the vulnerability behind “Be My Friend” even more transparent – yet as intense. Problem is, despite the skills of Rodgers’ accompanists and the use of Gibson bass and Les Paul guitar, they fail to reproduce the power of Andy Fraser and Paul Kossoff whose miniature stature resulted in a very muscular instrumental attack, and “Ride On A Pony” would be a telling example of how it’s done, although Ian Rowley and Peter Bullick play quite spectacularly on this one. The main man’s voice is as arresting: suppler than back in the day, the singer’s vocals add more color to “Travelin’ In Style” or “Love You So” ensuring the audience is eating out of his hand and joining in on choruses.
That’s why occasional frivolity can only spice things up. For all the banality of its use, “Für Elise” nicely segues into the celebratory romp of “My Brother Jake” whereas Richard Newman’s steady beat propels “The Hunter” toward predatory sort of fun. Of course, the canonical “Mr. Big” and “Fire And Water” as well as, naturally, “All Right Now” and “Wishing Well” contribute to the overall high spirits. Whether it’s a spirit of FREE should remain open for debate, but there’s not a lot of Pauls able to fill the Albert Hall, and Rodgers does it with a great gusto.