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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1757

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Paul Rodgers: The Royal Sessions
by George Graham

(429 Records 7969 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/5/2014)

Time takes its toll in different ways. That is especially apparent in the world of rock music, in how age treats rockers and how they deal with the fact that they are not rebellious kids anymore. In blues, jazz, classical music and even folk music, performers tend to get better with age, with their experience bringing a richness to their music. Rock stars are another matter. A few keep active creatively, continuing to do interesting new music or stretching themselves artistically. Many, on the other hand, keep playing their old hits to diminishing numbers of fans who are also getting older and a lot less likely to go out for a rock concert. Some try to make new music that sounds just like their old hits, in sometimes in a way that can almost become self-satire. And a number have decided to turn their attention to crooning the pre-rock songs from Tin Pan Alley, often with downright embarrassing results.

This week we have a new recording from one of the classic figures from the era of British blues-rock that was hugely successful in its day and which has become the staple of classic rock radio. Paul Rodgers has a new CD called The Royal Sessions.

Paul Rodgers is one of the three or four most recognizable voices that came out of the British blues-rock movement. He started in his teens and eventually had huge hits with the bands Free and then Bad Company, including All Right Now and Feel Like Makin' Love. He also was involved with several other groups including The Firm and the Law. More recently, he recorded and performed with Queen, essentially replacing Freddy Mercury, though they were always careful to call it Queen with Paul Rodgers. He has also recorded a number of solo albums over the years.

For his new project, he went back to the music he grew up on, the styles that shaped his desire to get into music in the first place, Memphis soul. The Royal Sessions is a series of covers of mostly classic Memphis soul tunes by the likes of Otis Redding and Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes and Albert King, recorded at the same studio that was the headquarters for Hi Records, with many of the same musicians who were on the sessions back in the day.

While the material is familiar and Rodgers generally takes care to keep things sounding quite similar to the original in sound, the album is exceptionally well done, and shows that at age 64, Paul Rodgers is in top form, which given how many rockers from the classic rock period conducted their lives, is rare indeed. He sounds as good as he ever did back in the day, and his voice has lost none of its appeal, and with age he has gotten a bit more soulful, or perhaps it's because of the excellent veteran backing musicians. But it all comes together very nicely for an album of tasteful versions of classic soul tunes.

In the excellent descriptive CD booklet that comes with the album, there are thumbnail biographies of the key players including Charlie Hodges, Jr., Lester Snall and Archie "Hubby Turner" on the keyboards. Michael Toles on guitar. Leroy Hodges Jr. on the bass and Steve Potts and James Robertson, Sr. alternating on the drums. Most were on records that became classics on the Hi Label during the 1960s, and were recorded in the same venue, Royal Studios, founded by the late producer Willie Mitchell.

Paul Rodgers absorbs the atmosphere and adds his own soulful voice from the other side of the Atlantic, to make an album that is real and wonderfully authentic in sound. However, if there is one small shortcoming to point out about this album it is that it's an authentic recreation, rather than anything artistically innovative. All but one of the songs are given treatments that sound much like the originals and could easily have fallen out of a time warp from the 1960s in style and sound. Still, it's great to hear such a classic voice of rock and roll doing such an authentic soul-style album.

The scene is set on the opening track, an Isaac Hayes/David Porter tune called I Thank You. Rodgers is in fine form. <<>>

A blues by Albert King called Down Don't Bother Me is one of the less-well-known songs on the album, but it's an especially strong track with great use of the horns. <<>>

The first of three Otis Redding songs on the album is a slower soul ballad called I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now). Rodgers shows he's a good at the ballads as he is on the rockers. <<>>

Also by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper is a great upbeat classic called Any Ole Way. The band and Rodgers capture the bubbling. enthusiastic mood of the song. <<>>

The one somewhat surprising track on the album is the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song Walk on By, which was made into a hit by Dione Warwick. There is a string section and a group of women doing backing vocals, but the arrangement does not really fit the song well and it becomes a bit of a cliche. <<>>

Another of the appealingly upbeat tracks, both musically and lyrically, is It's Growing, a song from outside the Memphis scene, done by the Temptations on Motown. But it fits well with the rest of the album. <<>>

The CD ends with a couple of classic tunes that have been recorded by a lot of people over the years, so though they are well done, neither one really provides any new angles on the material. One is the Albert King hit Born Under a Bad Sign. The arrangement hews fairly closely to the original. <<>>

The other familiar and often-covered tune is another Otis Redding hit, I've Got Dreams to Remember. Rodgers' vocal is more restrained that Redding's but still very soulful. While it does not really provide anything new to the song, but it's still nicely done. <<>>

Paul Rodgers' new CD The Royal Sessions is an excellent recreation of Memphis soul from one of the premier voices of classic rock, backed by some of the musicians who were there for the original recordings close to 50 years ago. I'm particularly impressed with how great Rodgers sounds -- probably even better than his youthful days on this kind of material -- in a field in which the passing of the decades is often not kind to rockers. In general, the choice of material is very good. Most of the songs are not all that well-known all these years later, but when Rodgers and his excellent band do try familiar tunes, they really don't add all that much, other than a tasteful, soulful reading of the songs.

For a sound quality grade, I'll give the CD close to an "A." It is noted that this was an all-analog recording done on vintage equipment, but unlike many such contemporary recreations, good audio practices were used and the recording was not intentionally degraded to emphasize the analog sound.

Paul Rodgers has had a long, illustrious career in rock. Many of his fans over the years call him "The Voice" and he was rumored to have been in line to being offered to replace Jim Morrison in the Doors. And unlike many of his contemporaries, Rodgers has stayed in top form. His new album puts him in the company of some of the musicians, in the same studio that was responsible for some of the records he grew up on as a teenager in England. He was obviously enjoying himself, and that is apparent on the CD. And that enjoyment is definitely contagious.

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