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Robin Trower: Once more with feeling

Mick Brown in Street Life, 1 May 1976

THERE ARE THREE kinds of limousine driver in America. There are the elder men who used to be accountants or clerks, until the recession forced them out of a job before their pension matured. They have a family and a nice home in the suburbs, they keep their uniform neatly pressed, and they mind their own business.

Then there are the hustlers. Corpulent, middle-aged men, smelling of cheap cigars and hair-oil they will tell you where to find girls or make a little book. They talk a lot, but mostly they listen, because you never know what information may be worth, and these men are still young enough and sharp enough to dream of better things.

Then there are the drivers like Vinnie. Last year Vinnie had to stand in line to see Robin Trower play at the New York Academy of Music. This year he's driving a limousine the size of a small hotel room with a drinks cabinet, a stereo-system and a sliding-roof so you can slump back and watch the tops of skyscrapers rolling by.

Tonight Vinnie has ferried Robin Trower to his concert at Madison Square Garden. Any other driver would have stayed in the car during the show, reading the Daily News, the radio turned to a ballgame, but Vinnie had taken up a position stage left, scored a beer from one of the road-crew and stood there, totally enraptured for the entire period Trower was on stage.

Now he's delivering his verdict. Last year at the Academy, says Vinnie, Trower really kicked ass, but tonight ... He lets out a low whistle of amazement and pushes his cap off his forehead. He wears a small, gold earring ... Tonight Trower was the living end. For five years people have been waiting for someone to take the place of Hendrix, he says, all solemnity now, someone who plays with that same soul-wrenching majesty and power; that same feeling. Well, here he is. Forget all those other schmucks – and Vinnie's seen them all. There's only one guitarist worth the price of admission. Robin Trower...

On the flight over from London I picked up a copy of Playboy with the results of the magazine's 1975 music poll. Robin Trower has been voted 11th in the guitarist category, one place above his idol and inspiration BB King. "Oh really?" says Robin when he's told. "But who was above me...?"

America is very important to Robin Trower. In 1972, after five years with Procol Harum and a short and frustrating period with singer Frankie Miller attempting to launch Jude, Trower finally settled on a combination suited to his sensibilities and musical direction — a three-piece with James Dewar on bass and vocals and Reg Isadore on drums — and went into the studios to record his dιbut solo album, Twice Removed From Yesterday.

Trower's first and last appearance in England to promote the album was in the first week of its release — at a launch party at Ronnie Scott's club. "We just couldn't get any gigs after that," recalls Trower's manager Wilf Wright. "We were being offered places like the Marquee for £15.20 a night. Totally unrealistic. We thought 'Sod it. We'll start over here...' " Simple.

Trower had always enjoyed respect and a strong undercurrent of support in America through his work with Procol Harum, but as a solo artist he was obliged once again to undergo the slow, methodical and painstaking business of building up a following. The business term is 'conquering territories'.

In the first instance this meant playing second fiddle for everyone from Frank Zappa to Brownsville Station, with all the arguments over time, use of PA and soundchecks this can entail.

Now it means headlining in 20,000 seater auditoria; $250,000 worth of sound equipment, and a contract with a 30-page rider which stipulates everything from 'One hundred (100%) per cent sole star billing' down to the provision of two bottles of French champagne ("Have you ever tasted Californian?") and Sarah Lee chocolate cake in the dressing-room.

Trower's tour of America is a marathon affair which began three days ago in the beer town, Milwaukee, and which will take the band eastwards to Cleveland and New York, then south through Georgia, Louisiana, Florida and west to Arizona, Nevada and the promised land.

Tonight he is playing in Chicago, at the Amphitheatre — a huge, battered, aerodrome-hangar of a hall ("an upholstered shithouse'' one of the sound engineers calls it) which gains in atmosphere what it loses in acoustic suitability. The crowd is young, high and boisterous, teetering on that fine line between righteous ebullience and anarchic violence. Every fourth or fifth figure in the auditorium seems to be clad in the powder-blue and gold-braid of a security guard. It's the sort of crowd a more volatile performer than Trower would be tempted to play up to, but Trower simply plays, letting his guitar do all the talking, his stage presence almost an accessory after the fact.

Trower does not fit into the established mould of the guitar hero any more on stage than he does off it. In spite of the adopted stage garb, a strangely Tolkienesque hooded-jacket and boots, Trower always looks more like a craftsman than a showman.

But what he lacks in charisma as an individual he makes up for in eloquence as a guitarist. Trower's forte is feeling; he is not a great technician — and his material makes no undue demands in this direction — but he knows how to make every note he plays count; when to sustain, milking every last drop of emotion out of a note to the point where the audience almost involuntarily whoops its approval; and when to lock into a riff, push it forward with bulldozer intensity, then suddenly slip down a gear with a scatter of exquisitely-struck notes, like rainwater falling on oil, before slowly, inexorably building the riff back up again.

It is not sudden death guitar-playing, but a slow, subtle seduction, nowhere more effective than in the most anthemic of his songs — Daydream, the new number Long Misty Days and the awesome Bridge of Sighs.

Behind Trower, drummer Bill Lordan — formerly of the Family Stone — punchy, concise, with an astute grasp of the tonal and textural use of a battery of cymbals. And Jim Dewar, a functional, straight-talking bass, his singing an intoxicating dose of the Glasgow blues. (What is it about Scotland that breeds such fine singers?)

It is a bluesman's performance and the crowd love it as a Chicago crowd should, signalling their approval at the end with a salvo of cherry-bombs and firecrackers and the gladiatorial motif of all American audiences — thousands upon thousands of burning matches held aloft.

Backstage, Trower views the gig with his customary moderation.

"It wasn't bad. But then we never play badly. If a gig's ever off it's always because of some extraneous circumstances — the sound or the hall or something." A pause. "The acoustics were shitty, weren't they?"

When the group finally leave the French champagne is unopened and the chocolate cake untouched ...

There is a mythology which has built up around touring, a veneer of glamour and excitement which is ultimately as artificial as the 'period' furniture in a Sheraton Hotel room. Touring is a tedious and peculiarly disorienting succession of short-hop air flights, hotels and concert halls. Jim Dewar, an eminently sober individual, isn't joking when he says that half the time he isn't sure where he is or where he's going; just follow the man in front and keep your fingers crossed. We have followed the man in front to Cleveland.

At the airport, waiting for the limousines to take us the 500 yards to the airport hotel, a stranger rushes out of the crowd, clasps Robin on the shoulder, mumbles a few unintelligible words and vanishes again into the crowd as quickly as he appeared. Robin shrugs his shoulders and climbs into the car.

Touring affects different people in different ways. For some it is an excuse for pandemonium and mayhem, a catalyst acting on the most volatile and destructive facets of their character. Trower has been doing it too long to do anything else but shrug his shoulders. He is, he reminds you, a family man, the wrong side of thirty; he drinks sparingly; takes pains to eat well. Equilibrium — and that night's performance — are all.

He shakes his head at the thought of those who are spun off balance by the sheer brain-sapping unreality of it all, of those who need a bottle of this, a couple of lines of that and someone to point the way before they can actually get up on stage and do it. "There can't be much enthusiasm there, much love for the music',' he says, and one senses that he finds it as offensive as it is tragic. Trower takes his music very seriously indeed.

We are sitting in the hotel restaurant — Robin, Rikki Farr of Electro-sound, who are providing the PA equipment for the tour, and Chris Briggs from Chrysalis's London office. The talk has been of the pressures to which an artist is subjected by the inherent and forever irreconcilable paradox between business and art.

The thing is now, says Robin, that you have to either be a fucking superstar or nothing. There's no room for an artist to develop at his own pace; young performers are being made to run before they can walk because there's so much money riding on their future. That's how the rip-offs happen; gullible kids thrown straight in at the deep end, bought with promises of riches and fame. People think it doesn't happen anymore, but the sharks have just changed from silk suits into blue jeans — the same old tricks in new disguises.

What's needed, he says, is some sort of federation to protect musicians from the vultures — and from themselves. Why doesn't somebody organise it...?

It's a familiar topic of conversation among musicians, all of whom have some sorry tale of exploitation, deception or theft to trade with their contemporaries. The guilty men are named once again, the roll of victims called.

It is Farr who raises the spectre of the dead. He had organised the Isle of Wight Festival where Hendrix played his last performance, and met Jim Morrison just three days before his death in Paris. Both had been mere shadows of the heroic image in which death had cast them; Hendrix especially a pitiful, wasted human being. No sooner dead than every damn person who'd ever shaken his hand or put theirs in his pocket is writing books, making films or releasing tapes that would have him spinning in his grave — all by way of a tribute, you understand. And notice, says Farr, how whenever anybody dies the business is there with the valedictions about how it was the business that destroyed them.

Robin has kept silent through all this, but now he looks up and by way of putting a full stop on the conversation wonders, "Who'll be next..?". Then Wilf arrives with the news that Paul Kossoff has died in his sleep on a flight from Los Angeles to New York.

Nobody has much of an appetite for food or conversation after that. I go back to my room and watch Dick Clark, the pop-entrepreneur, on an afternoon chat-show. "Did you know?" he asks the audience, "that Elton John netted half a million dollars for playing just two shows at the Dodger Stadium.."' The audience applauds...

It's a good 35 miles from the hotel to the Cleveland Coliseum — the familiar freeway vista of truck-stops, filling stations, then the Ohio countryside, stretching into darkness either side of the road. Robin has done a press interview before leaving the hotel, which appears to have put him in bad humour. He has a low tolerance of journalists. Too many printed comparisons with Hendrix have left their mark. It's always bloody comparisons, he sighs, never judging the music on its own merits. They miss so much ... The journalist has asked him why Matthew Fisher, keyboards player with Procol Harum and producer of Trower's first three albums, doesn't join the band. "I mean that shows he can't understand what it's all about, doesn't it?"

Wilf is talking business tactics. Everything Robin has ever done, he says, has been totally honest. No bullshit, no hype. But there is a way of doing it. Wilf would rather sell out a 12,000 seater hall and have 3,000 people outside fighting to get in — which is what happened in Chicago — than book into a 20,000 seater hall and have 5,000 seats empty. That way every concert is a sell-out, which is good for prestige; that way all the kids who didn't get to see him this time around are going to make damn sure they get in next time around — when he's playing the 20,000 seater.

The Cleveland Coliseum is a huge, modern, indoor sports stadium which holds about 30,000 people. Half the auditorium has been curtained-off for the concert which is, of course, a sell-out.

The opening act is ... my, my, my — it's Little Richard! Blue organza, an immaculate beehive-process and enough mascara to sink Mae West, up on his piano like some Nubian transvestite princess, strutting Jenny, Jenny, Jenny and Tutti Frutti, while his manager stands to one side of the stage toying with a diamond the size of a _lb hamburger contemplating whatever strange twist of fate has brought Richard from the lounges of Vegas to a stadium full of fresh-faced kids who probably weren't even born in the King's golden days.

Jim Dewar can't believe it. He used to sit in his bedroom with the windows wide open and Little Richard blaring out into the street below, just in case there was one other person in Glasgow getting off on that sort of thing and happened to be walking past at the time. If there was they never were, of course, and now Little Richard's opening for him, and isn't that somehow rather sad? Everybody agrees it is, and suddenly having Little Richard open for Robin doesn't seem such a good idea after all. Wilf says it won't happen again. He's too expensive anyway...

Robin and the band play a fine set — less fire and passion than Chicago, a more clinical performance — accurate, precise, refined, somehow pristine, appropriate to the clean, functional lines of the Coliseum itself. The audience are quiet, attentive and at the end more respectful than adoring.

Somebody says that Cleveland audiences are always like that — notoriously hard to please. Robin agrees. They played well — they never play badly — but the audience lacked feeling — that indefinable spark that can push the band from first gear into overdrive.

Trower clearly finds it puzzling, because it is precisely that feeling which so endears American audiences to him, and leads him to feel that America is his spiritual if not his actual home.

"They seem to understand what we're doing better than English audiences do," he says, relaxing now back at the hotel.

"It's all down to what you've been exposed to. I think of us as 1970s blues band, and the audiences here grew up on the music that has influenced that — the blues and rhythm and blues — whereas England ... I've always felt that the English interest is in more of a melodic, singalong thing. The indigenous music of England is folk music, and if you look at what that's led to, at one extreme it's a stand-up piano in a pub, and at the other it's groups like Jethro Tull, which to me are just electrified folk. It's not really rooted in that feeling. ''

He says he finds England and English audiences uninspiring. His own music, he says, is inevitably of minority — albeit a large minority — appeal because "as a musician I'm laying down what I think is cool, and you can't expect non-musicians who are not into the finer points of music to dig it. Some music just isn't right for the masses; their level of awareness just doesn't extend to that. I'm not knocking them, but I just think I'm that little bit more aware than they are — that's all."

Perhaps Robin just has an unfortunate way with words, but his opinions do sometimes appear to be coloured with a touch of arrogance. He is certainly dogmatic — an attitude that can be both a little hard to take and refreshingly challenging. None of the recognised major rock guitarists light a fire in his eyes, he says — "I certainly don't get anything off any of them. Maybe I'm just too casual about listening to them." In a word, he doesn't.

He says he is one of the best — if not the best — guitarist playing today because he believes it, and because he hasn't heard anybody who gives him reason to believe otherwise.

He reserves his admiration only for the bluesmen who have been his inspiration — BB King, Lowell Fulson, Buddy Guy —and while he would not pretend that his guitar issues the cry of the delta or the ghetto he clearly believes that he shares their sensibilities as musicians — their honesty, their dedication — their commitment to feeling. It's the one word Trower refers back to time and again. His enormous confidence is rooted in the belief that he has it and that he can express it as a guitarist, sometimes only adequately which isn't bad — because, as he reminds you, he never plays badly — and other times...

"Other times you can be up on stage and when the audience is right, when everything is right, you get that taste, that vision of what you can really attain. That's what keeps you pushing. If it wasn't that for that taste I wouldn't be interested in playing. I certainly wouldn't goon the road. What else is there to attract me to it?"

What else indeed?

At 1.30 in the morning Robin is to be found at the Rooftop Bar of the Cleveland Sheraton listening to a bar band churning out Can't Get Enough while a middle-aged man on the dance-floor does the funky Oklahoma vacuum cleaner salesman. "It's the fear that I might look like that that stops me dancing," says Robin wearily. Some nights there's nothing worse than not feeling tired...

New York is always a nightmare for Rikki Farr, and this time is no exception. Farr is perhaps alone in realising that rock concerts in New York are not run by managers or promoters but by men called Joe and Mario who have pot-bellies hanging over their chino pants, who smoke cheap cigars, cuss a lot and belong to the Teamsters Union.

Farr has spent the day at Madison Square Gardens, supervising the unloading and setting-up of the PA system, running interference between his own crew and the Teamster's hired muscle, commuting between the stage and a telephone which connects him to a succession of faceless men hidden deep in the bowels of the building, all of whom tell him he's a nice guy and they like the way he works, and he'll always be welcome back at the Garden, always, and the guys'll respect him and what he says just as long as he respects them. That's guys, remember...

Rikki made the mistake of calling them boys once before, which almost precipitated a walkout of the black labour who've had the word thrown in their faces by way of an insult since the day they first set foot on this accursed earth. So less of the boys, buddy; we're citizens. Rikki respects that.

Farr's sound system is one of the loudest, cleanest and most perfect money can buy. He knows it, but he has spent the tour in a state of mild anxiety over its performance, pacing between the back and front stage areas during the concerts as if his very momentum will somehow inspire the equipment to greater things.

Working with Trower, he says, has been an absolute headache; not because he isn't a nice guy — he's a fabulous guy — but because it's never right. No matter how good you get it to Robin it can always be better.

"He's a perfectionist to the nth degree," says Rikki, "which means he's never satisfied. He wants to be the world's greatest guitarist; he believes he can be the world's greatest guitarist, and he's so critical of anything he thinks could be holding him back from realising that. It's that Muhammad Ali thing; it comes out in different people different ways. Fabulous guy, but to work with ... " Farr clasps his hands against his forehead. "An absolute headache..."

Robin has spent the morning at radio WNEW, New York's most influential FM radio station, talking to Scott Muni, WNEW's most influential presenter. The interview has been a routine, almost perfunctory, affair — a potted history of the group, a brief discussion about Robin's live album, an extended promotion for tonight's performance. Robin is polite. One wonders how many times in how many radio stations across America he will have this exact conversation in the coming weeks.

New York is probably the most important stop on the tour in terms of strategy, and Madison Square Garden the most important venue. It is a prestige affair, a gathering of the taste-makers, the point at which the business of making music and the business of making business are crystallized into one inseparable whole.

It is, above all, an occasion and Chrysalis have taken steps to ensure that the world — or at least that part of the world that matters — don't forget it. They are throwing a party.

Andy Warhol has been hired for some unspecified sum to host it. The guest list includes Salvador Dali, Marisa Berenson, the Getty who lost an ear and sundry other artists, actors, writers, fashion-designers, art-forms and poseurs, all of whose connection with rock music is, to say the least, tenuous.

"Monkeys," says Robin, and one can see his point. The idea is amusing, but a trifle inappropriate for a man who would clearly be more at home in a south-side Chicago bar watching Buddy Guy than on the 48th floor of the Time-Life building in New York watching the brightly-feathered birds of cafι society eating canapιs and drinking-up his record royalties.

"That's the trouble with rock 'n' roll nowadays," says Jim. "It's all become so fuckin' respectable and high society. All your Princess Margarets and that. Whatever happened to the days when rock 'n' roll was dirty...?"

The Madison Square Garden concert is a sell-out, and the audience respond with an enthusiasm and affection above and beyond the call of duty. The band clearly feel it, and perform with an exhilaration and intensity absent in Cleveland and only hinted at in Chicago. Trower even allows himself the luxury of a grin afterwards. He's obviously had that taste ... Even Rikki is smiling.

Robin arrives at the party at 12.30. It is already in as full a swing as a party like this is going to get. A television interview in the foyer. A fusillade of flash-bulbs as he navigates a path to his table. Heads turn. "Actually," says a photographer, "if you asked half the people here what they thought of Robin Trower they'd ask you 'who's she?' "

Andy is waiting at the table to receive him. He looks strangely ill-at-ease. A shock of white hair, skin pale and mottled, like a powdered canvas; paint on it what you will. The conversation goes from A to B and back again.

What did he say, Robin? "Not much." What did you say? "What can you say? Watcha cock? Had it in lately?''

Who else is here? Let's see...There's a Vanderbilt and a couple of merchant bankers; Howard Stein, the promoter, pretending he's the Great Gatsby; and Lou Reed, looking as if he's just come from an evening's panhandling down on the Bowery; Rick Derringer, Wishbone Ash and Dickie Betts ... Dickie Betts? What's he doing here?

No sign of Dali, or Marisa, or the Getty who lost an ear — and one notices that Andy has already left. So soon? Well actually, Robin wouldn't blame you. He leaves himself half an hour later. Two thirds of the party don't notice.

He's playing Pittsburgh tomorrow night. Not as glamorous perhaps. But at least down there they might do it with feeling ...

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