I had the pleasure last evening of hearing Robin Trower live for the first time in 24 years ... he appeared with his latest band at the Paradise, a small club venue and the same place Gary Brooker appeared at in the early Nineties to flog Prodigal Stranger. Robin too is touring behind his latest solo disk, and here's a non-professional review of same:
Opening act: a guitarist by the name of Joe Stump (I am not making this up) with big hair, big Marshalls, and nice Fender guitars. He was fast and flash and loud, full of grimaces and sounds and furies ... however, he seemed to have little inclination toward melody, dynamics, arrangements, or other boring subtleties that involve advanced skills like the ability to count. He was totally a guitar act, no vocals whatsoever, which was good and bad ... good that at least one did not have to hear the type of terrible singer that such an act would have to feature, bad that there was no relief from Joe's endless caperings which included playing with his teeth, going down into suggestive poses, tossing the guitar into the air, finishing every song on an open E chord so he could sustain notes without actually playing anything, and yes, actually playing the guitar with his buttocks.
RT came out after much delay with his new band, looking thin and healthy and in obviously great spirits. The overall feel of his performance was not that of a heavy-metal guitar god (thank goodness!) but instead more of veteran blue-eyed bluesman. Most of his new material, and most of the old or others' songs he covered or revived, fell squarely into the twelve-bar category. Of course, RT's virtuosity hid the repetitiveness behind very tasty licks, sophisticated arrangements and lots of up and down dynamics and other variations in tempo and volume. At his peak, though, he was ear-splittingly loud, and while I plugged ears for the Stub-man I decided RT was worth a few decibels of hearing. Those with more sensitive ears or pre-existing problems should take this as a warning ...
His voice, which he featured more than I might have expected, is indeed as reported the best ever. He still has his Crucifiction Lane rasp, but with more steadiness, excellent pitch, and a wider range.
He seems to have lost nothing on the technical side, still possessing blinding speed, and a freedom that takes him all across the fretboard. No one trick pony he, RT was equally comfortable with fast pentatonic riffs, meditative single-notes, screeching high chords, and subtle excursions down to the lower strings and octaves.
The new material, as stated, is mostly blues based. In terms of persona, Robin seems to have left behind his Hendrix orientation (so obvious and pervasive in his 1974 concert) for a pure, energetic blues approach that one might wish Clapton had taken and stayed with.
The highlights were the title cut of his new CD, Someday Blues, and a BB King cover from that same collection whose title, along with every other non-guitar noise on this particular evening, was difficult to make out. Both RT's mike and that of his new vocalist, whose tone if not style was quite reminiscent of James Dewar and thus very appropriate to the RT solo classic material, were not as loud as they should have been, but let's face it, this was not a vocal-based show.
Robin was very happy with the enthusiastic reception he got from the mostly older crowd, where even the most ponytailed pates were marked with patches of gray or emerging scalp. There were only a few at most of the more downmarket 'rowdy' fans one might have dreaded encountering, and age and donut ingestion had by now rendered them somewhat harmless. Most people seemed to be either old Procol fans or people who had become acquainted with RT in his solo prime, which to me of course is those first Matthew Fisher-produced albums.
The musical highlight was definitely an extended arrangement of Bridge of Sighs, the only time RT and band got absolutely everything possible out of a song. Most of the time, in contrast to many blues players and bands in general, RT and co stopped short of extending songs and really reaching the limits; things were structured, he took one or two solos over the twelvebar, and that was it. Bridge of Sighs by contrast was almost a rock opera in itself, with wide variations in tempo and volume, excursions all over the guitar neck into realms of jazz and psychedelia; in all, a very Summer of Love performance, sort of like Jefferson Airplane with taste.
There wasn't really that much early solo RT material, what with the emphasis on blues and new material, although one highlight of the encore was Little Bit of Sympathy. No I Can't Wait Much Longer or Daydream, unfortunately, but still a great show. Another tune of interest was the first encore song, Crossroads, a chestnut that has been flayed by many a British rocker over the last thirty years. In some ways it was a bit daring of Robin to go after this one, inviting comparisons to the Clapton versions for example. RT took an approach sort of between the Cream Clapton and solo Clapton versions, slower than the first and faster than the second, and sang the lead, and nailed that puppy quite nicely.
It's clear after all this time that Robin has found his musical home and it is precisely in the blue-eyed blues niche, neither the heavy metal heroics of his solo prime nor the frustrated, manic brilliance of the PH years.
And seeing how comfortable and excellent he is in that role, it is no wonder that trying to go 'backwards' if you will into the PH reality is not going to bring out the best in Robin Trower at this point.
Now of course there are a million good blues guitar players out there, and this ain't really related to Procol Harum, but I would say this: if you want to hear some tasty playing, well arranged and well executed, by a veteran, sober, healthy, and very polite and enthusiastic guy old enough to be someone's grandfather, go hear Robin. It was well worth it in any plane. This is someone who knows who he is musically and is both comfortable with and damn good at it, confident and willing to risk everything within his well-defined niche, no apologies needed or offered.
Rock me all night long ...
Greg Panfile wrote this review for the Procol message service. He features at BtP here and here, and we briefly cover his most recent album, Resolution, here.
More reviews of Robin Trower concerts