Paul Rodgers is evoking the FREE Sprit across the UK this month, 50 years after hooking up with the late Paul Kossoff. HRH Mag Editor Simon Rushworth witnessed the singer’s return to his native North East.
During a set as powerful as it was poignant, there was one moment more affecting than most: listening to the peerless Paul Rodgers sing Soon I Will Be Gone threw into sharp focus the fact that rare nights like this won’t last forever. In fact, it’s quite remarkable they’ve lasted so long.
Free will be 50-years-old next year and their singer 70 the year after that. Paul Kossoff has already been gone for far too long. Andy Fraser is gone too. And if this was a glorious celebration of British blues rock at its very best, then it was also a stark reminder that the music of Free – kept alive and kept relevant by Rodgers and fellow founder Simon Kirke – faces an increasingly uncertain future.
Who knows when – or if – a show like this will be reprised? In the face of a rousing ovation Rodgers duly promised he would return to Newcastle City Hall (the scene of so many memorable career highs during the last half century) but in what guise? As frontman of Bad Company? As a solo artist playing a career-spanning greatest hits set? Or purely and simply as the singer of Free? Given the price of tickets for this tour and the paucity of previous all-Free shows, the third option appears the most unlikely.
This certainly felt like a long goodbye rather than a fond farewell. Exclusively Free shows have been few and far between since the band’s untimely demise in 1973, with Rodgers rarely digging as deep to unearth so many long-lost gems. Juxtaposing Love You So with Come Together In The Morning might have slowed the mid-set tempo but for the true Free fan it provided an emotional tug on the heartstrings so strong you could almost hear a collective snap.
Given the connection with his ‘hometown’ crowd (the adopted Teessider, like David Coverdale, has always talked fondly of his bond with the City Hall), Rodgers did well to hold it together for 90 magical minutes. But he did. And at the same time he held just about every note – reeling off the anthems (All Right Now, Wishing Well, Mr Big and Little Bit Of Love) with as much relish as the less frequently celebrated album favourites.
Sensibly surrounding himself with a band of willing blues brothers, rather than big-name hired hands, the focus remained fixed on Rodgers. Fixed on Free. A brief reference to ‘Koss’ might have unnerved lesser stand-ins but the brilliant Pete Bullick was unfazed: his understated guitar work was one of the evening’s true highlights with the accomplished six-stringer perfectly capturing Kossoff’s unique tone.
Close your eyes during the expressive encore performance of Walk In My Shadow and this could have been 1969. That it was 2017 beggars belief. Rodgers, somehow, has never lost that soothing blues vocal born out of working class Middlesbrough and crafted into one of the world’s most identifiable rock and roll accents.
He might still sing about the Songs Of Yesterday but it’s testimony to his talent and longevity that so many remain the songs of today. If this really was the beginning of the end then what a way to go. Rodgers and out? Maybe. But on this evidence it’s a prospect that’s impossible to imagine and painful to contemplate.
*Exclusive image courtesy of Adam Kennedy