Review and photography by John Hayhurst.

Paul Rodgers treats Sheffield to a nostalgic trip through his ‘Free Spirit’ and John Hayhurst gets more than he bargained for in the process. Classic Free songs, some deep album cuts and a Pony to ride on!

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As a young lad aged around 10 -15 yrs in the 70’s I ‘borrowed’ a lot of tapes from friends of friends, one album that stayed with me from that time to now was ‘Highway’ by Free. The cassette was battered as it had been lost in the back seat of someone’s car for about five years before I found it. All I knew was that there were several slow blues tunes that I absolutely loved on there. ‘The Stealer’ with its dark story of a corner somewhere in a city where the music was played extra loud – sounded like a world away from my life at the time. Also, this weird little plodding funky bass track called ‘Ride on a Pony’, in which the lyrics are basically translated as “Man has his love rejected by a Woman, Man decides to ride his horse 100 miles down a mountain at night to ‘collect’ the woman in the morning, and to ride off with her, whether she likes it or not”. Let’s face it, that’s weird (and a little disturbing)! But it was my weird song and stuck with me for years, particularly the stunning line “Sometimes when I’m lonely, I think about your face, so I get up on my pony and ride over to your place, because I love you”.

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The point of this childhood ramble is at that point in time, I didn’t actually know who Free were, and it wasn’t until twenty years later that I made the connection from that weird song to the legacy of ‘All Right Now’, ‘Wishing Well’ and ‘Little bit of Love’ which were staple rock classics on every pub jukebox. The Black Crowes were responsible for my reintroduction to Free, I followed that band for 20 years, and during one night they pulled out a cover version of…..’Ride on a Pony’, that stopped me in my tracks, and opened the door to 5 albums worth of material to (re)discover.

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I’d never heard Paul Rodgers sing live until last year when Bad Company did their swan song tour, what struck me was his voice was still in such good form and these songs are all set at a nice mid-level tempo. They are not hardcore screaming rock n roll like AC/DC, there’s a depth and resonance to Free songs that fit a throaty older larynx, and that’s why I think Paul Rodgers is still able to replicate that warmth even at age 67, and after a good 45 years since he recorded them!

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The band backing Rodgers on this tour are actually Deborah Bonham’s band, Pete Bullick gets the unenviable task of replicating the Paul Kossoff solos and raw Les Paul work, and Ian Rowley has to tackle the Andy Fraser bass runs. I have to say, speaking as someone who hasn’t seen the original members play live, I thought both of them did an incredible job. This wasn’t a job description open to interpretation, the role in hand was to replicate as close as possible, and not once did I think they had fallen short.

Strolling nonchalantly on to the stage Paul Rodgers greets the crowd with a big warm smile, he’s wearing jeans and flowery yellow shirt and a blue waistcoast. The hair and stubble is getting thinner and greyer but the voice is as rich as an aging port. Opening track ‘Little bit of Love’ is as crisp as it sounded in the 70’s, and Bullick has already pulled out a fine solo. The sound quality at the city hall is impeccable, this is a rock concert but I can hear every instrument clearly, even picking out the keys from Gerard Louis.

I’m also trying to take photos for Gig Junkies tonight, but when that familiar slow funky bassline of ‘Ride on a Pony’ starts, I’m transported back to sitting listening to my cassette tapes, never in my dreams did I think I would hear this track sung live by the original artist. It’s still a very weird song, but so memorable to me personally that I have to take a seat, slightly misty eyed.

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The set is really split in two, with some deep album cuts buried in the middle, in fact songs that Free themselves had never played live, so a very rare treat to hear ‘Woman’, ‘Love You So’ and ‘Magic Ship’ tonight. However, the next song I’m waiting for is ‘Mr Big’ and sure enough this really heralds the start of set 2.

‘Mr Big’ is THE song for any aspiring bass player, the lead guitar solo in the middle of the track is quickly outplayed by the bass, and it builds and builds to this crescendo of fast stabbing high fret notes. Ian Rowley gets a standing ovation during the bass run and that’s when you know he’s done a fine job tonight.

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We go back to my ‘Highway’ cassette again for ‘The Stealer’ and then Paul Rodgers gets everyone on their feet for the run in to the finale of ‘Fire and Water’ and ‘The Hunter’. There are at least 3 generations here, I can see Grandparents, Parents and a few sons and daughters all stood up clapping and singing. That’s legendary status for a Middlesbrough born lad, almost 50 years of live performances from Rodgers, who tonight belted out song after song, a masterclass from an accomplished frontman of classic rock, and with a fine band who helped to create that special atmosphere.

We all knew what the encore would be, but we were treated to 3 tracks and some projections of old Free band photos and album covers as a backdrop to ‘All Right Now’ and ‘Wishing Well’. Having taken their bows then the band return again for ‘Walk in my Shadow’ and each band member is given a chance to run a little solo and an introduction before the set closes proper.

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For what started as a one-off charity concert for ‘Willows Animal Sanctuary and Assisted Therapy Unit’ (and then turned into a UK tour) this felt like an accomplished band that have gelled together for a number of years, it might have been forty years or more ago when Free decided to go their separate ways but with Paul Rodgers still treading the boards there is ‘Free Spirit’ available for all ages to enjoy. Now where did I put that cassette…

Little Bit of Love
Ride on a Pony
Woman, Be my Friend
My Brother Jake
Love You So
Travellin’ in Style
Magic Ship
Come Together in the Morning
Mr Big
The Stealer
Fire & Water
The Hunter

All Right Now
Wishing Well
Walk in my Shadow

One Response to “Paul Rodgers ‘Free Spirit’ Tour @ City Hall, Sheffield – 19th May 2017”

  1. colin barrows Says:

    I’m off to see the gig in Brum today (27th May) and can’t wait. Have been a massive fan of Free since the early 70’s and still don’t know why they never received the recognition their music truly deserved. And as for THE rock/blues all time greatest anthem Mr Big beats the likes of Stairway…, Won’t Get Fooled…, Freebird and all the others every time!

    Colin Barrows

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