Paul Rodgers Takes “The Voice” To Heart On ‘Free Spirit: Celebrating the Music of Free’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Even though the British quartet Free garnered only a single hit, it is the perennial “All Right Now,” and the group has influenced many a diverse band throughout the years, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Howlin’ Rain. And while the band’s vocalist, Paul Rodgers, has subsequently earned his share of recognition, as a member of Bad Company, fronting Queen for a period and collaborating with Jimmy Page in The Firm, his tribute to that first famous band  of his  is a purely joyous endeavor, apropos of its title, Free Spirit: Celebrating The Music of Free.

Recorded live last year at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London, in anticipation of the foursome’s fiftieth anniversary in 2018, it’s clear right from the start that Paul Rodgers took this campaign to heart as a personal endeavor as a professional initiative. Right from his subdued, reverential spoken intro, there’s no sense the frontman is actually trying to duplicate the sound of Free or merely indulge in nostalgia for its own sake; to wit, the aforementioned signature song of the band is near the end of the show, but not it’s closing.

Performed with his handpicked band of accompanists, Paul Rodgers still can only approximate the spare textures of his work with guitarist Paul Kossoff, bassist Andy Fraser and drummer Simon Kirke (his erstwhile partner in Bad Co). Yet even as “Be My Friend: and “Walk In My Shadow” don’t exude quite all the foreboding within Free’s most haunting work, this certifiably great singer’s mastery of vocal phrasing conjures more than a little of that mystery, again, without self-conscious emulation.

To his greatest credit, Rodgers demonstrates righteous pride in his work with his former band by offering selections ranging throughout its history, including “Wishing Well” from its final album Heartbreaker (recorded with an instrumental lineup similar to this band’s). There’s a definite logic to the setlist, from “Little Bit of Love” through to “Catch A Train,” a cull from the reformation album of the original group, plus “Magic Ship,” a tune Free never performed live. Likewise, the subdued “Love You So” is in marked contrast to the uptempo likes of an authentic Albert King blues-derivation, “The Hunter,” as is the touch of acoustic guitar cum honky-tonk piano on the jaunty “Travelin’ In Style.”

In pumping out primal riffs like that of “Woman,” guitarist Pete Bullick demonstrates his own style of terse guitar playing, while simultaneously honoring his deceased predecessor. In fact, this personnel has the capability to weave together all the textures Free applied to their songs during the original studio recordings:  keyboards manned here by Gerard Louis “G” colorfully supplement the otherwise skeletal arrangements. And bassist Ian Rowley does justice to his forebear with the solo on “Mr. Big,” while Rich Newman hammers and smashes his drum kit with panache.

While the CD/DVD combo, accompanied with 28-page booklet, concentrates on the sixteen-song set of Rodgers and company, the audio and video Blu-Ray with 12-page booklet also contains sets by the opening acts of this sold-out show, Paul Rodgers’ daughter Jasmine and  Deborah Bonham, sister of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John. More important than the distinctions in content for the different configurations, however, is the low-key visual presentation of the concert at the venerable English venue; when combined with the vigor of this effort, where showmanship comes second to musicianship, the projected images of his two deceased bandmates, Kossoff and Fraser, suffice as statements of eulogy.

It does no disservice to Free Spirit to say one of its greatest values may be to spur its listeners and viewers to seek out the source material, perhaps in the form of the comprehensive audio anthology Songs of Yesterday and/or the compilation of rare video footage, Free Forever. Celebrating the Music of Free can and should take a variety of forms.

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