Jack Bruce and Robin Trower|
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
When is a super group not a super group? A) When there’s only two notable guys in it and more importantly, B) when they’ve played together before.
Axe god Robin Trower has made good on his initial Hendrixian influence, taking Jimi’s sound the next level, first as the underutilized guitarist for Procol Harum (they were, after all, a keyboard orientated band) then as a successful solo artist with a career spanning more than 20 albums. Anyone who still thinks Trower sounds like Jimi Hendrix never got beyond his second album, “Bridge of Sighs.”
As great a guitarist as Trower is (and I believe him to be in the top five), he’s cursed with a wan, worrisome set of pipes. (Mick Ralphs of Mott the Hoople and Bad Company has a similar girly man voice.) Trower attempted to bluff his way through 1997’s “Someday Blues” as a singer and shouldn’t have been surprised when the album flopped. Previously, he’d been blessed by his long and successful working relationship with James Dewar, a Scottish singer so soulful he sounded as if he was the love child of Ray Charles and Steve Winwood. The duo made eight albums together before Dewar’s propensity for high octane hooch got the better of him. (Trower then moved his axe over to Bruce.) Trower and Dewar reunited for 1983’s “Back It Up,” but were prevented from further collaborations when Dewar suffered a severe stroke. They’ll never work together again either, because Dewar passed away in May of 2002. After a period of vocal uncertainty, Trower recruited Davey Pattison, the former singer for guitarist Ronnie Montrose’s over bearing band, Gamma. Also born in Scotland, Pattison’s higher pitched nodes bring to mind Steve Perry without the self-pity. He’s played with Trower on and off since 1987, and is the closest Trower’s had to an identifying voice for his music since Dewar’s departure.
Jack Bruce has carved out a 40-year career as an operatic singer and master of the bass with the Graham Bond Organization and Manfred Mann (post pop hits), then as the voice for rock/blues giants Cream, and finally as a solo artist, recording 15 diverse albums. With his lyricist, Pete Brown, Bruce fashioned numerous FM radio staples, including “White Room,” “Politician,” and “Theme From An Imaginary Western.” He’d occasionally work in an ensemble, first teaming up with mosquito-paced percussionist Tony Williams and melody-challenged guitarist John McLaughlin to form the jazz impaired Lifetime, thus killing the momentum of his solo career, which would take, yes, a lifetime to rekindle. Shifting back to rock, he partnered with mountainous guitarist Leslie West and dexterous drummer Corky Laing to form the extremely loud – and horrible – power trio of West, Bruce and Laing (imagine calling themselves that). In 1994, after reuniting with ex-Cream nemesis Ginger Baker at his 50th birthday concert without benefit of house arrest, Baker and Bruce joined up with screech-athon guitarist Gary Moore for the one-off BBM (guess what the initials stood for). In 2005, Bruce, Baker and Eric Clapton reformed Cream for a lucrative series of packed houses that undoubtedly paid for Jack’s new liver.
(I was at Madison Square Garden for Cream’s last concert. The group played as one entity, but it was obvious from the lack of contact that they were still three very distinct players. Baker was controlled fury, a much better player than in the 60s and 70s when he was so wired he had to have his drumsticks taped to his hands; Clapton was flawless, but completely dispassionate, never making eye contact with his mates or bothering to look up at the audience. Like I said, he was good, but he mailed it in. If someone had told me it was a Clapton cardboard cutout playing, I’d have believed them. But Bruce was magical. His voice could still rattle the walls and he played his bass like he was getting paid per note.)
Of all of Bruce’s short-lived collaborations, there’s one that makes sense – as well as enthralling music, and that’s his partnership with Trower. The duo recorded a pair of albums, 1981’s “BLT” with former Sly & The Family Stone Drummer Bill Lordan (there’s that initial stuff again) and 1982’s “Truce” with Trower alumni Reg Isidore on drums (“Tr” for Trower, “ruce” for Bruce, nah, that can’t be it).
For “Seven Moons,” their third effort, Bruce and Trower collaborated on every song, something they hadn’t done for their previous efforts.
Trower’s instantly recognizable thick chording starts off the moderate tempo of the title track. Bruce’s voice is a bit shakier than usual, making him sound at times like Bert Lahr (the Cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz”), but that’s because they recorded the majority of this live, and let’s face it, Jack’s 64 and working on his second liver. “Seven Moons” is a slower, more cohesive version of West, Bruce and Laing’s ham-fisted and operatic “Out Into The Fields.” It’s an exotic postcard from “the land of the seven moons” with Trower’s liquid licks a welcome relief compared to Leslie West’s maximus volumeous playing.
“Lives of Clay,” the album’s highlight, is up second. Drummer Gary Husband plays like he’s stuck in the mud for much of the rest of the album, but for “Lives of Clay” he finds a funkafied groove, double timing his snare. One of Trower’s major talents is providing a rhythmic base for his soloing. For “Lives of Clay” he builds the tension using a threatening repetitive rhythmic structure similar to Chicago’s “South California Purples.” It’s the kind of riff you’ll find yourself humming later on. “Don’t have time to worry, Ain’t got time to waste. Keep thinkin’ ‘bout the future, while he’s standing at the gate. A change of heart, he let it slip away. He used a very precious thing, building lives of clay.” Add “Hands Of Clay” to Trower’s list of core classics such as “Daydream,” “Too Rolling Stoned,” “Victims of the Fury,” and “The Ring.”
Is “Distant Places of the Heart” a nod to Bruce/Brown’s “Deserted Cities of the Heart?”
In terms of its title, perhaps, musically, no. Bruce drags his vocal like a Bedouin slithering across the desert in the searing sun, while Trower’s solos hang heavy on the weight of his whammy bar. “Distant Places of the Heart” has merit, but I can see where Bruce’s syllable by syllable reading could make you want put some distance between your ears and this song. My guess is after a few sit downs, you’ll take it to heart.
Wisely, the trio kicks things back into gear with “She’s Not The One,” a four-speed, gritty assessment of a lady love. Husband has trouble finding a beat that matches Bruce’s regimented delivery and remains all over the place throughout. But Bruce’s vocal and Trower’s fiery blanketing riff’s cover Husband’s ineptitude and keep this from not being the one.
Trower remains in the forefront of “So Far to Yesterday” which struts with a hint of George Benson’s interpretation of “On Broadway.” Husband’s drumming style is still more intrusive than helpful, but Bruce’s thumping bass keeps the melody in order.
The off-key chorus in “Just Another Day” smacks of Bruce dipping his vocal chords in his dissonant jazz roots. Take your toe outta there, Jack. I don’t know where Trower keeps coming up with all these amenable, creative solos, but he seldom pulls the same trick twice. Trower yanks “Just Another Day” out of the stratosphere with a trippy 60’s solo that will leave you wishing you still owned a water pipe so you could reach the same transcendental plane he’s on.
Trower infuses “Perfect Place” with an impeccable dance floor rhythm, and the mistake prone Husband can at least concentrate long enough to lay down a soulful chop-block beat. Another highlight, the shoulder shaking beat of “Perfect Place,” helps ease Bruce into a daddy cool persona, his voice rising and falling like a rock and roll Barry White. A very natural, unforced performance. Perfect.
“The Last Door” is more of a straight forward rocker. Husband’s in his element, bashing out a driving beat, and Trower is economical, sharper with his solos with less hang time. You can almost hear him slicing the strings with his pick.
If you’re playing with Jack Bruce, you know you’re going to play at least one blues based tribute. “Bad Case Celebrity” is one of those heavy-lidded late night closers you’d hear in a six drink minimum, smoke filled loser’s lounge. “A bad case of celebrity. But how would I feel if this was happening to me?” It’s nothing new lyrically, but Trower quietly stretches out the limits of this basic blues tune with his pinpoint solos and fills.
Bruce’s voice quavers deeply in “Come to Me.” His disquieting tone and Trower’s channeling of Albert Collins says baby, do what I say, or I’ll make it hurt all the way back to your kinfolk. Bruce flavors his bass with a hint of Cream’s “Spoonful” as Trower rips into a fully loaded solo. It’s a troubling but remarkable performance.
“I’m Home” begins with a half-spoken Bruce vocal that indicates the narrator is frayed and feels fortunate to have made it to the sanctity of his hideout. It’s interesting that Trower juxtaposes Bruce’s neurotic vocal with a warm solo. A moody, depressing snapshot of solitary existence, “I’m Home” is just too creepy for its own good.
Overall, “Seven Moons” is the most consistent of the Bruce/Trower triumvirate. “BLT” and “Truce” have more memorable songs, but when a song doesn’t work, there’s no place for your offended ears to bail. On “Seven Moons” even weaker tunes like “Just Another Day,” “Bad Case of Celebrity” and “I’m Home” either have an expressive Bruce vocal or a memorable wah-wah wail by Trower.
The artwork is tres cheesy -- just a stretched out picture of the moon that looks as if it was pilfered from a first grader’s screen saver. The only thing that would have been more literal is if there were seven moons on the cover (I counted six). I know Jack Bruce looks like a skeletal husk of his former self, and Robin resembles a graying basket hound, but how about a picture of the band? This is the third Trower/Bruce release and what have we gotten? A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich for “BLT” (and Canadian Bacon at that), a quartet of gnarled hands joining together in a gesture of peace for “Truce,” and now a telescope image of the Moon. Marketing, fellas, marketing.
Gary Husband (Level 42, Andy Summers, Gary Moore) is the weakest drummer of the trilogy. Reg Isidore loved his foot pedal and his funk, but was adaptable because he’d played with Trower before. Husband’s played with Bruce before, but apparently not enough to develop a musical language with him. He’s also played with John McLaughlin, which may explain why he occasionally play likes he’s in a search mode – you try keeping time to a guitarist who sounds like he’s testing a live transformer with a dentist drill.
1981’s “BLT” (3 out of 5 stars) benefited from having the two best songs Trower and Bruce recorded, “What It Is,” and “Won’t Let You Down,” fall in order on the disc. “What It Is” is a slice of crunchy funk with Trower siphoning out a jerky rhythm. Bill Lordan taps into his Sly Stone experience and Bruce does some rock n’ roll popcorn on bass. (One huge advantage Bruce had over Dewar was his supreme bass playing. Dewar was at best functional, and at one point hung up the bass altogether in favor of Sly Stone alumni Rustee Allen. If you’ve ever seen any of Dewar in concert with Trower on Youtube, you’ll note he actually stops playing when he sings.)
Bruce’s vocal for “What It Is” is snarky and sassy: “I could have gone behind you, I always took your side. I would not break or bind you, you’re never satisfied.” Trower’s guitar glistens with windswept beauty on “Won’t let You Down,” with Bruce’s voice gracefully rising, diving and floating. “BLT” harbors a few other serviceable tunes, including the lustful and longing “Carmen” and the vigorous “Once The Bird Has Flown.” But there are also a number of abrasive attempts (the opener, “Into Money,” “No Island Lost,” and the final cut, the conveniently named “End Cut”) which leave Trower trying to maintain his instrumental voice as well as trying to leave Bruce enough room to make his own mark. Trower wrote the majority of the songs with lyricist Keith Reid, (Tower’s confidant from his days as Procol Harum’s guitarist) with Bruce chipping in late with one forgettable song, the tetchy “Life on Earth.”
1982’s “Truce” (3 ½ out of 5 stars) quickly followed on the heels of “BLT.” With Reg Isidore transfusing some serious soul on drums, “Truce” was a more listenable endeavor. The only glitch lay in the obvious differences in Trower and Bruce’s songwriting styles. At this point, Bruce was still collaborating with long-time lyricist Pete Brown. Bruce’s contributions (“Thin Ice,” “Fat Gut,” and “Shadows Touching”) were dense, jazz-influenced paradoxes that didn’t blend with Trower’s more melodious style of playing. In other words, they were bargain basement Bruce. But the Trower/Reid writing team hit its stride with the clipped “Gonna Shut You Down,” the sock on the jaw power of “Gone Too Far” and the fat chording in “Little Boy Lost.” Bruce’s ominous growl, Trower’s long lean on his wah-wah pedal and the addition of a fright-night Hammond turned “Take Good Of Yourself” into a successful blend of the two legend’s styles.
Jack Bruce and Robin Trower Solo
I’ll review some these releases in more detail at a later date…maybe. I’m leaving out a few releases here and there, such as live albums, greatest hits and recordings I haven’t heard, so don’t shake your finger at me, especially that middle one…
If You Don’t Know Jack…
Jack These Up….
A Question of Time (1989) 4 out of 5 stars – Rock luminaries Ginger Baker (drums), Vernon Reid (guitar), Nicky Hopkins (piano) and Albert Collins (guitar) make guest appearances. This was produced by Joe Blaney (Hey, I went to high school with this guy! Joe’s handled the likes of The Clash, Keith Richards and Prince.) Highlights are the sonically pleasing ballads “Only Playing Games,” “Flying,” and “Let Me Be,” plus the quirky Third World beats of “Kwela.” If you need some Bruce juice, this is the one.
Out of the Storm (1974) 4 out of 5 stars – Jim Gordon, perhaps the greatest and most tragic rock drummer of all time, guest stars on “Timeslip,” which inches along to Jack’s fat bass before Gordo kicks the band into overdrive. Other notable tracks include the tearful “Golden Days,” the chirpy and reflective “Into the Storm,” and the thick bottomed blues/rocker “Keep It Down.”
How’s Tricks? (1977) 3 ½ out of 5 stars – Bruce put together a studio/touring band that included power drummer Simon Phillips and prolific songwriter/keyboardist Tony Hymas. To prove it was a democracy, Jack let big-haired guitarist Hughie Burns screech out “Baby Jane,” one of the most banal songs in his catalogue. “Without A Word,” with its outer space synthesizers and “Lost Inside A Song”’s soft piano compliment Bruce’s operatic vocals. “Something To Live For” is explosive and inspirational, and the haunted, bassy “How’s Trick’s?” features some of Brown’s more amusing imagery.
Automatic (1983) 3 ½ out of 5 stars – Released only in Germany on L.P., this is super hard to find but worth the hunt. This is Jack’s sinister techno album with the robotic “Make Love” and “A Boogie,’ and the soaring “Travelin’ Child.” Think Devo with a brain and better vocals.
Harmony Row (1971) 3 ½ out of 5 stars – A transition album in which Jack successfully blended his jazzy aspirations with folk, blues, and rock, (sometimes simultaneously) with Pete Brown’s cryptic lyrics. Key songs include the brief opener, “Can You Follow?” with Jack solo on piano; “Morning Story,” with a Hammond coda that sounds like a rocket speeding toward the sun, and the tender “Victoria Sage” (“Ten fallings in love for you, and for you only two. Take care not to love too much, you might like the touch”). The closer, “The Consul At Sunset,” approximates a lazy pre-siesta in Mexico so closely that Jack’s mouth dries out. (You can hear him take a swig of water at the end.)
I’ve Always Wanted To Do This (1980) 3 out of 5 stars – Features some high profile musicians -- guitarist Clem Clempson (Coliseum, Humble Pie) keyboardist David Sancious (Aretha Franklin, Peter Gabriel) and Billy Cobham (George Benson, Deodato). Memorable tracks include Cobham’s skipping, romantic ballad “Wind And The Sea,” and ‘Dancing On Air,” which does just that thanks to Sancious’s zippy synths and Bruce’s bubbly bass.
Something Els (1993) 3 out of 5 stars – Eric Clapton resurfaces on a couple of tunes, including the mellow opener, “Waiting On A Word,” although you’ll have to bend an ear to hear him. “Willpower” is a thudding, confident anthem Jack undoubtedly used to juice himself up. Bruce surprises with “Ships In the Night,” a slick duet with Maggie Reilly, and adds another classic cut to his catalogue with the dramatic “Close Enough For Love.”
Songs For A Tailor (1969) 3 out of 5 stars – Jack’s adventurous first solo effort after the fist fights in Cream had ended. Bound by his contract to Capitol/Apple George Harrison is forced to use an alias, appearing as L’Angelo Misterioso. An amalgam of jazz, rock and blues, with some of Brown’s most quizzical lyrics, it’s not an easy listen, but contains Bruce’s penultimate solo track, “Theme From An Imaginary Western,” and the astronomical “Rope Ladder To The Moon,” which was covered in extended form by Julie Tippetts and Brian Auger.
Jet Set Jewel (1978) 2 ½ out of 5 stars – The album that wasn’t. “Jet Set Jewel” was recorded in 1978 but rejected by Bruce’s label, PolyGram, likely because “Maybe It’s Dawn” and the reggae flavored “Head Into the Sun,” the two most radio friendly compositions (both written by Tony Hymas), had just appeared on the latest Hollies album. It finally surfaced in 2003 when Jack’s catalogue was remastered on CD.
Hit the Road, Jack…
Things We Like (1970) 0 out of 5 stars – Jack’s sophomore effort is self-indulgent very bad jazz, featuring John “am I in tune yet” McLaughlin playing his guitar like a cattle prod, and the strangled goose honk of sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith. “Hcch Blues” is an accurate description of the noise these two produce, which will endanger your sanity with repeated listenings. This should have been called (yeah, you got it) “Things We Don’t Like.”
Shadows In The Air (2001) 1 out of 5 stars – If it ain’t broke, Jack, don’t try to fix it. Bruce reworks “Dancing On Air,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “He the Richmond,” and “White Room” with a Latin flair until they sound like Ricky Ricardo at the Copa Cabana Club. A dreadful waste of guest stars Eric Clapton, Dr. John, and Vernon Reid (who never seems to guest on any of Jack’s good songs).
More Jack Than God (2003) 1 ½ out of 5 stars – More tripe than a fish market. Two excellent new songs, the acoustic based “Kelly’s Blues,” and the controversial “So They Invented Race,” are help captive by Ricky Ricardo Meets Jack Pt.2. There are more original tunes here than on “Shadows In the Air,” but Jack sure misses collaborating with Pete Brown.
Power of Trower…
Victims Of The Fury (1980) – 4 ½ out of 5 stars – A laudable meeting of James Dewar’s R & B vocals and Trower’s expressive wah-wah magnum cum laude playing. The stately “Roads To Freedom,” “The Ring”’s crunching chords, “Ready For The Taking”’s sublime peace, the compelling title track, and “Fly Low” make this Trower and Dewar’s crowning achievement. Jimi who?
Caravan To Midnight (1978) – 4 out of 5 stars – Downright funky. Trower’s soulful strumming pumps up “It’s For You.” Other standouts include “Out To Get You,” with its slashing soulful riffs, the calming grandeur of “Sail On” (with Dewar sounding very cosmic) and “Lost In Love” with Trower’s guitar fluttering like a butterfly’s wings.
In City Dreams (1977) – 4 out of 5 stars – Dewar shows his range in the delicate “Bluebird,” his Dean Martin swagger in “Sweet Wine Of Love,” and gets Bobby Blue Bland-ish in “Further On Up The Road.” Trower continues to generate harmonic forays with the Sly Stone stamped “Somebody’s Calling,” and the electric bolero “In City Dreams.”
Living Out Of Time (2004) – 4 out of 5 stars – Trower takes back center stage with his concise riffs (and the production quality is aces). “Sweet Angel” stomps and the relaxed “Another Time, Another Place,” fits Davey Pattison’s sneaky good vocal skills like silk P.J.s. “The Past Untied” is Pattison’s best performance with Trower, an affecting, world-weary ballad.
Twice Removed From Yesterday (1973) – 4 out of 5 stars – Trower’s solo debut, and an auspicious one at that. The opener, “I Can’t Make It Much Longer” builds with layered guitars and Dewar’s rumbling vocal, the closer, “Ballerina,” dances lightly as if on the head of a pin, aided by producer Matthew Fisher’s faraway organ work. (Fisher was Trower’s bandmate in Procol Harum and the organist on the penultimate “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.) Trower, freed from Procul’s classical style, displays the agility that got him compared favorably (for the most part) to the late Jimi Hendrix. Highlights include the war drum inspired “Man Of The World,” the spell binding “Daydream” (with a superlative, fiery solo at the end), and the foot-stompin’-ist version of “Rock Me Baby” ever recorded.
Long Misty Days (1976) – 3 ½ out of 5 stars – Trower’s finding himself, courtesy of Dewar’s smokey pipes and his own talent for strumming out funky vibes. The title track is one of his last and best Hendrix attack of a 1,000 guitar inspired ballads, but tracks like “Messin’ The Blues” and “Pride” owe more to David Ruffin and War than Jimi.
Take What You Need (1988) – 3 ½ out of 5 stars – Trower’s guitar playing is recessed in favor of Pattison’s voice and the more radio friendly material, but Pattison is comfortable in the spotlight, his voice soaring in the heartbreaking “Over You,” and oozes mellow soul in the closer “Love Won’t Wait Forever.” Trower gets to flex his Fender in the power rockers “Shattered” and “Love Attack.”
Back It Up (1983) – 3 out of 5 stars – Dewar’s last album with Trower has its extreme highs in the bumpy funk of the title track and the regal, flowing “River,” but there are also some unexpected extreme lows, such as the flat “Benny The Bouncer,” in which Dewar rasps/raps for nearly eight minutes.
Bridge of Sighs (1974) – 3 out of 5 stars – Yeah, this is the album critics talk about when Trower’s name is mentioned. There’s no denying Jimi’s ghost was in the studio with Robin when he was putting this together. It wasn’t until “Long Misty Days” that Trower was able to shed the Hendrix-clone tag and find his own style. Dewar’s ghostly vocal saves the sleepy “About To Begin.” “Too Rolling Stoned” is an eight minute riff party and “The Fool and Me” is one of Trower’s more ferocious tunes – a concentrated tsunami of sound that’ll make you want to learn how to kick axe the way Robin does. Jimi was an innovator, but often seemed at war with his guitar; Trower has tamed his sound, creating full-bodied, controlled soundscapes.
Passion (1987) – 3 out of 5 stars – “If Forever” is one of Pattison’s more emotional and unabashedly romantic performances. “Caroline” and “Won’t Even Think About You” demonstrate he was incorporating Dewar’s soulful spirit into his own performances.
20th Century Blues (1994) – 3 out of 5 stars – A lot of this was recorded live, bringing out the raw energy of Trower’s playing. He plays with a determination and purpose missing in much of his 90s material. Trower sustains every note in the bluesy “Extermination Blues” until your speakers vibrate, and vigorously squeezes the strings, creating a guitar assault in “Prisoner Of Love.” Trower’s guitar honks and barks in “Step Into The Dark,” a danceable up-tempo rocker, and his tight chords turn “Precious Gift” into another memorable ballad. Unfortunately singer/bassist Livingston Brown sounds as if he’s got ten pounds of sand in his throat – I love gravel throated singers (Mike Harrison, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart) but not sandy ones. (Yes, there’s a difference between sandy and gravelly. Sandy sounds fake and forced. Give a listen to Dave Mason these days.) If Livingston had cleared his throat a few times this would have rated four stars.
In The Line Of Fire (1994) – 1 out of 5 stars – Contains one of Pattison’s patented passionate vocals in “All That I Want,” and there’s equal sensual promise in “If You Really Want To Find Love,” but the rest is lunkheaded boogie in the check-your-brain-at-the-door tradition of Foghat.
Someday Blues (1997) – 1 out of 5 stars – We were forewarned that Trower would be handling the vocals for the first time since his days with Procol Harum. His wimpy chops are unbearable enough, but Trower also muzzles his sound, playing muddled, unexciting blooze.
For Earth Below (1975) – 2 out of 5 stars – The title track is a necessary throwback to Trower’s early psych sound. The rest walks a shaky path between ersatz R& B and rock. Trower was stretching out his sound, but he still hadn’t found a suitable style yet.
Roosevelt and Churchill, Ali and Frazier, Milli and Vanilli (well, maybe not that pair)…When legends meet, creative sparks ensue…and “Seven Moons” shines brightly.