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the Pale

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Why Robin Trower’s Not Appreciated At Home

Mick Brown in Rolling Stone, 30 November 1976

LONDON– "IN America we’re important; when we hit a town it’s boy..." Robin Trower snaps his fingers and smiles, "it’s that kind of feeling. But here? I live here; we record here. You really don’t think of England as being a place where people want to hear you play."

It’s a Sunday afternoon and cold; so cold that on the stage which has been erected at one end of the cavernous film studio, Trower has strapped his guitar on over a sheepskin coat and vocalist Jimmy Dewar’s words emerge in puffs of white steam. It’s costing $200 a day and someone’s forgotten to turn on the heating. In an adjacent studio Rod Stewart rehearses his new band, secure in the knowledge that his forthcoming English tour is already sold out. But for Robin Trower the question is whether he’ll be playing the second of only two shows in England to a capacity crowd.

In America, Robin Trower’s albums rack up gold and platinum sales, but England has provided him with only one silver record. And that was two years ago with Bridge of Sighs. It’s not hard to fathom the reasons for Trower’s comparative lack of success in his home country. Essentially a stage and album performer, the former Procol Harum guitarist is rarely heard on the principally Top 40-oriented radio. The British music press has always been ambivalent toward him. The taint of being a Hendrix imitator has haunted him here since the release of his first album, and the top-circulation New Musical Express dubbed his new album, Long Misty Days, as "long boring days." Most importantly, he seldom performs in England, partly because he prefers American audiences and partly because Europe is not as lucrative.

"We’re actually losing $16,000 doing a handful or European dates," complains manager Wilf Wright. "You’re working for the trucking company and the PA company. You’ll do that once, twice, maybe three times, but when you’re not getting any further you think, what’s the point? I can go back to America and make $200,000 in a month, sell over a million albums and get that satisfaction onstage."

Robin Trower peels a sandwich off a silver platter, pours himself a cup of tea and slumps into the naugahyde sofa. The hotel calls this the Napoleon and Josephine suite; candy-striped wallpaper, canvas director’s chairs and miniature cannons. "Recordwise, I’d love to crack it in England," he says, "but you have to face the fact that we aren’t going to appeal to the kind of people who buy the main bulk of records in this country, which is seven-year-old people. Whether they’re actually twenty years old or not is irrelevant – they are really seven-year-old intellects, musically speaking. And I think the main thing about the British people – and this is why we get knocked a lot by the press – is that they don’t hear the main business about our music. They hear it on a very superficial level. Funnily enough that may be why a lot of people like us, because of the high-energy thing; but they’re missing the main business at hand. I don’t think it’s given to British people to have an ear to appreciate the kind of thing I’m talking about."

What Trower’s talking about is the blues. As a guitarist he believes himself to be in line with a tradition going back to BB King and beyond, in which honesty and commitment to one’s music are all. His idols have always been King, Buddy Guy, Lowell Fulsom, and he regards most of the established rock guitarists with indifference. He’s not being arrogant when he declares himself to be one of the best guitarists playing today: he just hasn’t heard anyone to convince him otherwise. "I’ve got a great God-given gift that I have been able to play with feeling, which not many guys have."

Trower’s affinity for black American music has been strengthened even more by the addition to his band of former Sly and the Family Stone bassist Rustee Allen, who joined just prior to the European tour and replaces Jimmy Dewar, now concentrating exclusively on vocals. Allen gives the band a more rhythmic and "feel-conscious" edge, says Trower, more American and funky sounding – but not too much so. "I want to add that to my personality," he emphasizes, "not get submerged in it." He sees Allen as being in the vanguard of bass players.

Trower may have half a million dollars’ worth of PA onstage with him, but the only thing that sparkles during the first of his two London shows is the playing, and from the first chords of Same Rain Falls it was obvious that a fiercely partisan and unusually exuberant audience would inspire the band to great things. Bridge of Sighs, Caledonia, The Fool and Me and Long Misty Days showed how much Allen has added to the band, bringing toughness and vigor to the rhythm section and giving Dewar a fresh lease on life as a singer. Trower responded to the crowd in majestic fashion, delivering a scalding, liquid solo on Too Rolling Stoned, intensely sustaining a note on Daydream, leaning back into the wave of sound from his amp, the volume seeming to vibrate his body.

After the show, at a small gathering at the hotel, Wright talked of having finally broken the English jinx and Robin described the performance as "possibly the best I’ve ever done."

By the next evening, however, the jinx appeared to have returned. The band played well enough, but the audience – not quite a sellout – was subdued, and afterward Trower could describe it only as "a job of work."

The reviews of the first concert appeared in the music press the next day, ranging from "brilliant" to "boring." But Long Misty Days had leaped straight onto the album lists at 31. "Perhaps," said Wilf Wright cautiously, "it’s beginning to happen. Despite it all ... "

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