Brit-rock veteran Paul Rodgers revisits the repertoire of his first - and greatest - band: Free.
Nick Bollinger listens.
From those meaty major chords to the roar of the expectant crowd, you know exactly where you are in the first seconds of this recording. It’s a rock show and we all know the rules, audience and artist alike.
The singer is Paul Rodgers, the recording comes from just last year and if it plays like a checklist from the rock show rulebook, well why shouldn’t it?
After all, Paul Rodgers virtually wrote those rules.
Through most of the 70s he was the archetypal chest-baring frontman of Bad Company, all gruff tenor and macho swagger; more recently he’s toured with remaining members of Queen.
But it all began back before he was even out of his teens with Free, the band the Teeside singer formed in 1968, not long out of school, with three other musicians, some of whom were even younger than him.
They made a mighty sound. Rodgers wrote most of the songs with bass player Andy Fraser, who had been a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before he’d turned sixteen, and the blues influence was a given. Unusually though, for a bunch of blues-besotted Brits, they never seemed to engage in embarrassing acts of mimicry but almost immediately found their own voice. It was tough, yet almost funky. Hear ‘Mr Big’ or ‘Ride On Pony’.
There are no other members of Free on this recent recording, and that’s not surprising; of the four original bandsmen, only Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke are still alive. But it’s a tribute to the power of Free’s prototypical arrangements that the band that back Rodgers here seldom deviates from the template.
Their only failing might be that they occasionally play too much. One of the striking things about Free – extraordinary really, for a band so young – was their restraint; how much space all of them left between the beats and notes, consciously leaving room for each other. They were one of those bands where every member seemed to be wired to the others, like a system. And the result was a sound that, while driving and focussed, was almost the opposite of what hard rock has become, where every space is filled, and every sound or solo aspires to maximalism. You can still hear that economy, that sense of playing the spaces, in the best tracks here.
For his part, Paul Rodgers is in remarkably good voice. If at eighteen he seemed to have eerily acquired the voice and delivery of a much older man, these days he sounds a lot younger than his 68 years. As for the songs, they are still charming. The guitar riffs, originally played by the late Paul Kossoff, always pack a punch, and the sprung rhythmic beds originally created by Fraser and Kirke and so good that Rodgers’ current band hardly dares to deviate from them. If anything, it is only Rodgers’ old lyrics that betray the gaucheness of youth. And when delivered with this much affection, that’s easily forgiven.
Free Spirit was recorded last year at the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps there is little need for it when you can just dig out the old Free records and hear those definitive versions. Then again, Rodgers, knowing that that was the best music he ever made, invests the songs with real feeling, and you can hear the way that works on the crowd.
Sometimes it’s okay to follow the rules.