“I like guys who care about their music. Forty years later, he still cares about every show.” That is how former Heart guitar player Howard Leese described working with Paul Rodgers, a gig he has been doing now for over sixteen years. Not many vocalists can be called The Voice for this long and it still be a relevant moniker. But Rodgers’s pipes have only gotten stronger, a remarkable denouement, almost Dorian Gray-ish, if you think about it. Closing your eyes while he belts out songs from his past can cause a momentary lapse of time; is this 1974 or 2013?
On a very humid night just outside of Houston recently, Rodgers brought Bad Company back to remarkable life. Three-fourths of the original band – Rodgers, Mick Ralphs on guitar and Simon Kirke on drums; bassist Boz Burrell passed away in 2006 – came together to celebrate their 40th anniversary with a rip-roaring tour along with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary as well. Whoever said that rock & roll is dead needs to have a heart monitor put on them. It’s most certainly alive and young people picking up instruments for the first time and being bitten by the bug can certainly take inspiration from the men on this stage. Legends have not been left to yellow in the pages of an old magazine; many of them are still playing, some better than ever, and if you want to find out how to have worthwhile longevity in this business, then look no further than the current concert trail.
Kentucky rockers Black Stone Cherry brought their southern energy to open the show. If you’re not familiar with these guys, it’s time to open up your iTunes and check them out. While settled in working on new material for their next album (Between The Devil & The Deep Blue Sea came out in 2011), the band was called upon to journey out across America, much to their delight. [Check out my interview with vocalist Chris Robertson and guitar player Ben Wells following this review for more on the new album]. And they were the perfect appetizer for the fans waiting for the big boys. With a wild-ass drummer in founder John Fred Young, who sprung off his stool with every beat he knocked out, and Wells running the stage like a young colt, Robertson belted out some good-time songs, including “Yeah Man” and “White Trash Millionaire,” while bass player Jon Lawhon might have been the band’s secret weapon. Just a great pumping set from these guys to get things rolling.
Skynyrd ended up being the headliner on this particular night and I was pleasantly surprised to see the leaders of the rebel music world were better than I had expected. Still smoking hot after all these years, the band kicks up the fans’ adrenalin right from the get-go. Johnny Van Zant has a special rapport with them that definitely runs in his family and he connects immediately. Two people that quickly caught my attention were guitar player Rickey Medlocke and keyboard player Peter Keys Pisarczyk. Outstanding, both of them.
But this is a rock hard American icon of a band. Solid musicianship lives in abundance here, from Gary Rossington playing chilling slide to Michael Cartellone hitting the drums like a kid in a rock & roll candy store to guitar player Sparky Matejka and former Black Crowes bass player Johnny Colt. This band was humming. And the ladies, Dale Rossington and Carol Chase, added lovely sass and soul to the harmonies.
Highlights included a heartfelt “Simple Man,” dedicated to our American troops, sung while video of soldiers played behind them; “That Smell” and it’s soaring guitars; the honky tonk fired-up “Saturday Night Special” and “Gimme Three Steps;” Pisarczyk’s moving intro, and homage to Billy Powell, at the beginning of “Freebird;” the three guitar extravaganza of Rossington, Medlocke and Matejka; and an encore to end all encores with “Freebird.” There is something about that slide that gets you every time when the song begins, and there are no words when the guitars start singing at the end.
But despite the bookends being worthy of holding a show completely on their own, it was the middle band that owned the night. With Paul Rodgers walking out with Mick Ralphs to his right and Simon Kirke behind him, all the fever of those mythical songs came to unbelievable life: “Burnin’ Sky,” “Shooting Star,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Movin’ On” and “Ready For Love.” The crowd ate up every moment. There were points when the crowd adulation was deafening beyond comprehension. When they were encouraged to sing, they did at the top of their lungs. And the band is in such fine shape. If you get a chance, take a peek at Kirke’s calves. No wonder he can make his humble kit sound like it’s on loan from Bonham’s estate. The man is a powerhouse.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” Rodgers told me not long ago about the band’s tour. Opening with “Rock & Roll Fantasy” and ending the normal set with “Can’t Get Enough,” fans were taken on a magic carpet ride of the band’s history. Burrell was missed but with both Leese, who took his turn pulling solos when not hanging tight to rhythm, and Todd Ronning, all smiles and sneaky bass lines, they never lacked for a great sound.
“We’re going to take a little walk on the dark side now,” Rodgers announced after settling in behind the piano for “Electricland.” With his whole being submerged in the blues, Rodgers’ voice swaddles around those intonations and hollows like he was born in the American delta on a frosty foggy night, with a hint of his British roots trickled in for a sexy ambiance; “Bad Company” during the encore and “Ready For Love” being prime examples. “There is something very, very special about the blues,” Rodgers said during our interview. “It’s very hard to put my finger on it except to say that it is very emotional and it’s kind of in your blood somehow … I listened to those guys and they were my teachers.”
With more tour dates having been added, there are still plenty of chances to see these bands do what they do best: rock & roll.
The following is an interview I did with BSC’s Chris Robertson and Ben Wells before the show:
What have you been doing so far this year? You’ve kind of been laying low.
Chris: In early September we took some time off. I had a son in October and then we started writing in late January/early February. We started writing for the new record and we’re 95% finished with the writing. Then we got a phone call wanting to know if we wanted to go out with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company and obviously that was a resounding yes (laughs)
Ben: Really, we weren’t supposed to do any big touring this year, just a few festivals and fairs that were going to be easy, and then like Chris said we got this call. And to make this tour make sense with the travel and everything, we put a bunch of shows in with it. So we ended up doing a good little chunk of touring in the summer, which is good because it kind of refreshens you. You get kind of burned out after writing so many songs, you know. Then you have to play live again and it could influence some of the songwriting too, with the audience it kind of recharges you.
Chris: It’s crazy though, for us not to have an album out or a song on the radio, we’ve got to do two of the coolest things we’ve ever done this year, which is the Skynyrd/Bad Company tour and then we also headlined the second stage of the Download Festival in England, which was just absolutely crazy.
This is the first time you’ve played with Bad Company, right?
Chris: No, we played a show with Bad Company in Maryland at Outlaw Jam
Ben: Back in 2010
Chris: And that was the only show they did in America back then. But it’s cool cause apparently this is the first time the original band, the surviving members, with Mick being back with the band, have toured since like thirty years or something, in America.
Have you gotten to talk to any of the Bad Company guys?
Chris: We talked to Simon Kirke one day. John Fred and I talked to him for a minute. It’s just crazy, we look over and we see Simon Kirke standing stage side watching us. I mean, we’ve known the Skynyrd guys for years now and they always come out and watch us play and everything. And Howard just walked up on the bus one night and was like, “You’re Black Stone Cherry, right? Simon Kirke tells me you guys are bad ass.” We were like, that doesn’t suck.
Ben: That was pretty cool. Everybody’s been really, really nice. All the crew. Sometimes you get on tours and you get these people that are a little jaded, you know. We get a little bit of that in every tour, especially with the older bands, but everybody has treated us really, really nice.
You’re a good band and you’ve been out there a while. You’ve shown what you have.
Ben: We try. You know, playing in front of audiences like this you have to kind of get out there and show that you’re the real deal.
Chris: It works because we’re one of the few young bands, I mean, we’re not that young anymore. When we started in 2006, we were all kids on the music scene and we were always able to find and gain the respect of the older bands because we’re one of those few bands that are going today that are still true to what rock & roll used to be. It’s not about a bunch of make-up or computer-simulated music. It’s guitars and bass and drums and four dudes on stage.
So what is the new album looking like? Are you going towards the storytelling direction like you’ve done on your previous albums?
Ben: The first two albums have a little bit of storytelling, like folklore side of it. And it’s not to say we won’t come up with more of it again but we’ve just really been lately trying to concentrate on stuff that a lot of people can relate to.
Chris: “Bad Luck & Hard Love” is kind of a storyline song. I think of all the albums that we’ve done so far, the music we’ve written on this record, cause this is the first time that we’ve written the songs and not had anybody there saying, “Hey, try this.” With the first album, John Fred’s dad [Kentucky Headhunters’ Richard Young] really helped us. He was always in the room when we were writing. The second record, he was there and Bob Marlette [producer] was there. And on the last record, we had a lot of outside writers. On this record, we wanted to go back to just the four of us in the Practice House, where we write at, and just write some music that we like. I mean, we haven’t written a song with anyone outside yet so hopefully we won’t have to. There’s nothing against that. Jon Lawhon and I had a song that we wrote with a guy and it ended up on Skynyrd’s last record called “Life’s Twisted.” So it’s cool to do co-writing cause great things come out of it. But I think just for Black Stone Cherry and where we’re at in our career and as people, we just want to do this one kind of on our own. And it’s a great record. I mean, that’s the only way I can put it, you know, from our perspective. It’s some of the strongest material, musically and lyrically, I feel that we’ve ever written. It’s probably the most honest lyrics we’ve ever written.
Why do you say that?
Ben: Well, you experience more stuff. With each album you tour more, you see more, you meet more people and see more that you get influenced from and more that you can relate to, personal things happen. As you grow older, it’s just life.
Chris: And to be honest, we had a hell of a year. The year that Between The Devil & The Deep Blue Sea came out, I had a big struggle with depression and anxiety and everything and it really took a toll on the band, to just crazy levels that just made it not fun anymore. Finally, I got better with the help of the guys and my wife and everybody back home. And now the band’s stronger than it’s ever been. I just feel like the honesty of what we went through has come out in a lot of these songs and hopefully the people will really appreciate it.
Ben: We’ve got three albums out now and we’re kind of like, you know what, this is what we are, take it or leave it, so to speak. We’re not trying to fit into any kind of mold. Granted, we have to play ball to be able to be successful, you know what I mean. But we’re not going to like cut our wrists to be successful. We’d rather take our time. Bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, they just write great songs and they’re a great live band. So we’d rather be that and have longevity, a career, rather than be a band that shoots to the top and falls very, very quickly, then struggling what to do about it. I’d rather set ourselves up for thirty years of music verses a couple. I think we all would.
Chris: A big thing for us is we just got back to having fun, because you get the label telling you, “You need to do this and you need to do that” and you’re younger and you try to appease the label because you think they know what to do best, that that’s going to work to make the band as big as it can be. Then all the crap you deal with, you end up going, “Wait a minute, we started this to have fun cause we’re all four friends.” We grew up together and that’s what we’re going to get back to doing, having fun. That’s exactly what we’re doing now.
On the first album and then into the next albums, there is an almost Slayer-ish sound, very hard, kind of filtered in. Why didn’t you go more in that direction when you started out, because you certainly have it in you.
Ben: This album rocks. The riffs on this album are pretty awesome so I think our hard core fans are going to really get into it.
Chris: We posted a teaser, like a four second clip of a guitar riff from one of the songs on Facebook …
Ben: And people went crazy
Chris: People were mad because it wasn’t enough to listen to. But I think the first comment was, “The riffs are back” and we were like, “Sweet.”
Ben: We’re on the right track. And the most metal thing about us is our live performance. If you were to watch a silent film of us, I’d guarantee people would say we were a metal band; especially certain parts of the show. The very ending of the show is straight-up metal, you know. But while we love that element, we can be very, very country too. We just try to have an open landscape, rather than just saying we’re this or we’re just going to do that.
Chris: Our manager says we’re schizophrenic (laughs). That’s literally what he says. He says, “You boys make the most schizophrenic records of anybody on our roster.”
Ben: But that’s cool
Chris: Bands don’t do that anymore
Ben: And that’s what makes it interesting
Chris: Watch Bad Company or Skynyrd. Skynyrd will go from “Tuesday’s Gone” to “Saturday Night Special” and those are way out on two ends of the spectrum, you know what I mean.
Ben: We don’t want to give too much away (laughs) but [the next album] is pretty awesome. There’s one new song that we did at the Download Festival and it’s on YouTube and it’s kind of a teaser. It’s just us, great riffs, great melodies.
What is the most unique thing you’ve ever written a song about?
Chris: I don’t know the most unique thing we’ve ever written about but I think one of the most unique songs we’ve ever written is a newer song that we’ve written called “Runaway.” I think it’s my favorite song I’ve ever written. I know you say that every time you start writing songs but there’s something different about that song. It kind of sounds, musically, like what we did when we were like eighteen years old, before record labels, before all that stuff. Lyrically, it’s just a really, really neat song.
Ben: We’ve got some cool ones. We’ve got some cool topics, like weird topics, like off the second album, “Reverend Wrinkle” and stuff like that.
Do you know when the album might see the light of day?
Chris: We don’t even know when we’re going to record it right now (laughs). We’re hoping the album will come out sometime early next year, cause obviously if we record it this fall, there’s the set up time, and hopefully late winter or early spring next year is what we’re hoping for.
Ben: Last time, literally, we had no idea when we were going into the studio. We were on a cruise, the ShipRocked Cruise, and it was the second week of November and we had no idea when the studio was coming. We got off the cruise and we were in Los Angeles the day after Thanksgiving. That’s how quick. Two weeks before, we had no idea. I remember being on the cruise ship talking to John Fred going, “Well, maybe we can get in sometime before Christmas.” He’s like, “I don’t know, that’s coming up pretty quick.” And here we are mid-November and two weeks later we’re in California recording the album. So it literally happens like that. It depends on people’s schedules so if a studio opens up, then we got to go. But, we couldn’t have come off a two month tour and then the next day go in the studio. You’ve got to have down time to chill out. You have to have time to turn into studio mode after that. You can come off the road and it takes a couple of days. I mean, I was still lit after Download for a long time. Then you got to kind of change gears a little bit and get into studio mode and really dig into the songs. Out here we’re not really able to think that much. We’re thinking about putting on a good show and having fun and what we’re going to do on a day off (laughs)
You’ve been around and toured with some great bands. What do you think you’ve learned the most from them?
Chris: Pay it forward
Ben: I was going to say, probably what NOT to do. We’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve all had pretty cool families. We grew up in the south and grew up with manners so we all knew to be respectful. Like Chris said, paying it forward is a big thing and what not to do is another thing that we’ve picked up on. You have all these bands that think they’re the greatest thing ever and we just don’t have time for that, know what I mean. We just try and take in everything and we’ve learned a lot of respect, from bands like Def Leppard and bands that we’ve toured with. Even Skynyrd, Johnny Van Zant did something very generous for us when we toured with them back in 2009, very generous. He didn’t have to do that. Def Leppard didn’t have to go out and make sure we got a soundcheck. Things like that, those things stick with us. So we always try and do nice things if we’re headlining a show, even if we’re not headlining shows. We’re not trying to walk in here like punk kids either. We show respect to other bands and other crews and they see that so in turn they see us as real guys and not kids.