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'The Playful Heart'

Robin Trower's 2010 CD reviewed by Gerard York

This review was originally written for Hittin' the Note magazine, and is reproduced here by permission of author Gerard York (pictured below with Robin Trower in 2008). Robin told BtP (telephone call, 23 March 2011) that he's been 'fantastically gratified' by the response to this wonderful album.

Robin Trower returns with The Playful Heart, a strong set of eleven musical vignettes reflecting on love and life. Notwithstanding Trower’s use of the power trio format, there are a number of strikingly intimate songs on The Playful Heart. No more Hendrix-inspired heaviness about being “too rolling stoned”! Trower recorded these songs with the same group of musicians he has been touring with for a number of years – drummer Pete Thompson, singer Davey Pattison, and bassist Glenn Letsch, plus frequent Trower collaborator, bassist Livingstone Brown.

While Trower has made his name as a guitar hero, The Playful Heart reminds all what a great songwriter he is. Trower himself sings half the songs, and his thin, reedy voice is in perfect range for many of these slower, reflective tunes. Trower arguably set his template for these songs in the shimmering Song for a Dreamer, Procol Harum’s tribute to Jimi Hendrix on the 1971 album Broken Barricades: a number of tunes on The Playful Heart have extended outros, where the notes dreamily float off into the ether.

Steady power chords propel album opener The Playful Heart, a song where a disappointed lover expresses a sense of loss because “the world could not fulfil the playful heart.” Pattison’s voice is strong, but not quite as soulful as the deep-throated growl of the late James Dewar, the fellow Scot bassist-vocalist who performed in Trower’s line-up in the 1970s and 1980s. The mid-tempo Don’t Look Back provides individual portraits of regret with a throaty warning from Trower, “Don’t swim out on the torn dark sea / To drown in doubt and self pity / Don’t look back.”

The light Dressed in Gold is reminiscent of the psychedelic pop of early Traffic albums, offering a portrait of an aging socialite who “holds every last flame in thrall.” A pulsing bass line opens the slow, almost hypnotic Find Me, with Trower’s guitar tangling with a breathy Pattison vocal.

While the album has a number of slower, reflective tunes, it has some scorching rockers as well. The Turning features crisp, full Santana-like solos with an extended outro and provides a determined portrait of individual resolve (“Time has come – to lose the pasts / Ashes to the wind / When the first becomes the last / The turning shall begin”). The muscular Song for Those Who Fell, offering a guttural vocal by Trower, expressing the regrets of one “who fell / Over a heart they could not keep.”

The tender Maybe I Could Be a Friend offers another breathy vocal by Pattison, and delicate, aching solos from Trower. The downbeat Prince of Shattered Dreams finds a disappointed lover pondering lost love. The worldly observer of the jazzy Camille urges this young lady on the street to leave smoke-filled rooms and seek true love. The rhythm section shines in the throbbing Not Inside – Outside as the singers express a resolve to get “outside this whole mess”. And We Shall Call it Love ends the album with Trower singing a soft invocation to the blessings of love “And from this day I’ll be with you …”

The Playful Heart is very similar in mood and atmosphere to Trower’s 2009 release What Lies Beneath, another equally strong release full of largely introspective, moody songs. Neither of these recent albums has much of the Hendrix-influenced heaviness of Trower’s landmark 1970s albums like 1974’s Bridge of Sighs. Those looking for an introduction to Trower’s classic period would do well to obtain the recently released UK anthology Robin Trower: A Tale Untold, which includes five 1970s chart-topping releases from Trower (Twice Removed from Yesterday, Bridge of Sighs, For Earth Below, Live and Long Misty Days), plus various b-sides, unreleased cuts and single edits. Also, Procol Harum’s 1970 Home (featuring the absolute barn-burner Whisky Train”) and 1971' s Broken Barricades both show Trower stepping forward as a songwriter and fiery guitarist. More recently, 2008’s Seven Moons, which Trower recorded with bassist Jack Bruce, sounds like a long-lost Cream album and is not to be missed.

RT@RO.08, a 2008 CD / DVD release, features Trower’s touring band enthusiastically covering 17 songs from 1973’s Twice Removed from Yesterday through 2004’s Another Time, Another Place. Singer Davey Pattison, who also sang for Ronnie Montrose's Gamma, first sang with Trower in 1987’s Passion. Veteran UK drummer Pete Thompson also joined Trower with the Passion album. Thompson, who played on Robert Plant’s Fate of Nations, is a versatile enough drummer to tap along perfectly on the slow songs yet powerful enough to engage in a truly Bonham-esque mashup when required. Bassist Letsch joined the Trower line-up just in time for RT@RO.08, replacing veteran Trower bassist Dave Bronze.

Listeners won’t go wrong picking up The Playful Heart: If Trower keeps releasing great albums like The Playful Heart and What Lies Beneath, another trip to the top of the charts may not be far away!

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