WORCESTER – One thing about the English: they sure know how to cherish their rock legends.
Case in point, Bill Wyman and The Rhythm Kings. The group, assembled by the former bassist for the Rolling Stones, features some of the biggest names in British music. They made their only Massachusetts appearance Wednesday night before a fully sated audience at nearly sold-out Mechanics Hall.
Wyman's Kings have been setting the charts on fire in Europe with their solid interpretations of jazz, swing and jump blues classics. It's more than a little ironic that Wyman, whose career with the Stones started with remakes of American blues and rock 'n' roll tunes, should make a middle-aged return with an even deeper look into the catalog of American music.
Wednesday's show, sponsored by WICN, had all the earmarks of a Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry. Legendary performers shared the stage without pretension, taking their turns in the spotlight. For the audience, it was an opportunity to see rock icons in a relaxed setting, enjoying the music that shaped their careers.
A man of few words, Wyman let Georgie Fame (remembered best in the United States for his 60s pop hit Yeh Yeh) handle the master of ceremonies duties. Fame's white T-shirt and pants made him look more like the Good Humor Man than a pop star. But he was a steady presence throughout the night, offering juicy tidbits about the evening's repertoire.
Fame introduced JJ Cale's Anyway the Wind Blows with a brief story about first meeting the Tulsa, Okla., musician back in 1974. The tune brought the first taste of the full-bodied guitar sound of Martin Taylor.
In a more straight-ahead manner, sideman extraordinaire Albert Lee ripped through a number of Buddy Holly style rave-ups. Tear It Up featured a long-awaited guitar duel between Taylor and Lee. After first setting the standard with heated back and forth playing, Taylor took a left turn with an unexpected change of tuning of the lower strings. Lee responded with a scorching shot at the upper register. The battle ended in a rarely seen show of peace with both musicians performing a monster four-handed solo on Lee's bright red axe.
For all the credentials assembled on stage, the evening truly belonged to former Procol Harum great Gary Brooker. Opening the show with a midtempo, Mose Allison-style Let the Good Times Roll, Brooker showed his versatility with a startling Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired Good Golly Miss Molly (was Procol Harum ever this much fun?). The number was further highlighted by Frank Mead's duckwalk at the end of his saxophone solo.
Brooker, who did lament America's fascination with ice-cold beer, supplied the evening's highlight with an uncanny version of Ray Charles' Hit the Road Jack. After a virtually perfect re-creation of the classic vocal, Brooker took off on a jazzy electric piano solo. Saxophonist Nick Payn took over next with a completely modern interpretation of the tune. Fame wrapped things up with an organ adventure that included visits to the classic Fever and Van Morrison's Moondance before returning to Brooker and the closing verse.
Those looking for new talent had to be impressed with the contribution of vocalist Beverly Skeete. A belter from the Aretha Franklin school, Skeete ran the gamut from the jump blues of Baby Workout to the sweet ballad Love Letters. The latter featured a tasteful guitar solo from Terry Taylor, who along with Wyman, co-founded The Rhythm Kings.
Second vocalist Janice Hoyte had her moment at center stage on Ruth Brown's This Little Girl's Gone Rocking.
When Terry Taylor donned an acoustic guitar for a visit to an Elvis-style Mystery Train there was unanimous consent that Wyman and The Rhythm Kings were a hit.
More Rhythm Kings information here
Wyman / Brooker interview excerpts here.
Bill Wyman talks to Record Collector about Gary Brooker