Free – Free (1969)

Free_Free4 out of 5 Stars!

The legendary band’s self-titled second album, just as solid as its debut release Tons of Sobs earlier that same year, came to be considered another cherished gem by many fans, including myself.

On this release—oh, hell, on just about every single album on which he appears—Paul Rodgers nails each performance, his gruff and emotionally charged voice always laden with drama and angst, and clearly showing why he’s considered one of the best singers in the biz. Not only do the musicians—drummer Simon Kirke, bassist Andy Fraser (RIP), and guitarist Paul Kossoff (RIP)—play their blues-loving hearts out on both the gruff and forceful rockers we well as the laid-back, sometimes-haunting, folk-inspired ballads, but the album also contains a wealth of classic songs in the form of “Broad Daylight,” “Trouble on Double Time,” “Mourning Sad Morning,” “Songs of Yesterday,” and the wonderfully stark “Free Me.” Plus, my two favorite tunes on the album, “I’ll Be Creepin'” and “Woman”—both destined to be admirably covered by Three Dog Night in future years—would have also seemed right at home on any platter by the future Bad Company.

With Rodgers’s soulful wailing, Fraser’s funk-heavy bass, Kirke’s solid percussion, and Kossoff’s tasty guitar riffs and often subtle and heart-rending lead insertions, this highly talented group not only entertained with seeming ease, but simultaneously created a signature sound for itself, one that’s never been perfectly duplicated in rock ‘n’ roll history.

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Free – Fire and Water (1970)

Free_FireWater4 out of 5 Stars!

Fire and Water was the first Free album I ever purchased (back in ’74), based not only on the classic track “All Right Now,” but also because the musical press had started reporting that Paul Rodgers was rumored to be joining up with Deep Purple as a replacement for Ian Gillan. Well, being a die-hard fan of Purple’s yet being completely unfamiliar with Rodgers’s previous work (aside from “All Right Now”), I wanted to see what I might expect on future Purple albums if the rumors proved true.

Well, of course the rumors proved false—Rodgers had actually turned down Deep Purple’s offer in favor of forming Bad Company—yet in my haste to sample Rodgers’s voice, I nevertheless discovered a talented and important band I might not have been prompted to investigate until years later.

But, although I adored Rodgers’s extraordinary vocal gifts upon first hearing this album, I didn’t automatically fall in love with Free itself. You see, apart from that mega-hit song “All Right Now,” along with “Remember,” the opening title track, and the killer “Mr. Big,” with the awesome guitar and bass solos in its middle section, I recall being slightly disappointed by the remainder of the album since I was hoping for even more tracks in a rocking, heavier vein (basically, I’d incorrectly assumed that Fire and Water would be loaded with tracks bathed in the same overall style and energy of “All Right Now”). This seven-song collection, however, seemed somewhat “ballad heavy” overall, way too light for my tastes at the time (remember, I was a die-hard Purple fan) and I listened to it in full only a handful of times before finally shelving it.

But then several years passed, and as my musical tastes broadened and I slowly acquired additional albums by the band—and also became a huge fan of Bad Company—I pulled out the album again. After several additional hearings, I thankfully came to fully appreciate the general “lightness” of the material, the stripped-down and often sparse instrumentation and the beautiful subtleties of songs such as “Heavy Load,” “Don’t Say You Love Me,” and “Oh I Wept, and the stellar yet laid-back performances of each musician.

Now, all these decades later, I consider Fire and Water (as well as Free’s other studio albums) an undeniable classic, with John Kelly’s bare-bones production rather charming and intriguing, making it seem as if the band is performing a live and intimate concert for the listener.

And RIP to both Andy Fraser and Paul Kossoff.

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Bad Company – The ‘Original’ Bad Company Anthology (1999)

BadCompany_Anthology4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I purchased this 2-CD anthology when it first came out, but not for the usual hits from the “Paul Rodgers’ years,” the era of Bad Company that delivered timeless gems such as “Can’t Get Enough,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Honey Child,” and “Rock and Roll Fantasy,” since I had already owned every individual album by the group for decades. No, I snatched up this collection mainly for the four songs—”Hey, Hey,” “Tracking Down a Runaway,” “Hammer of Love,” and “Ain’t It Good?”—newly recorded by the original band members, as well as the seven “rare” (unreleased or “B Side”) tracks also included.

So, with eleven unfamiliar tunes gracing this collection of thirty-three total tracks, that basically made a brand new album from Bad Company’s classic lineup of singer Paul Rodgers, guitarist Mick Ralphs, bassist Boz Burrell, and drummer Simon Kirke.

Of course, the “hits” are always a “good listen” even after all these many years, and the majority of album tracks included here are commendable selections for such a lengthy compilation. Sure, I might have added several extra “essential” tracks, or recommended substituting a few songs in favor of others, but not too many. And aside from the four newly recorded tracks (none of them truly earth-shattering, mind you, but all pleasant enough), the older “rare” tracks alone made this a worthwhile purchase.

Indeed, listening to “Superstar Woman,” “Little Miss Fortune,” and “Easy on My Soul” (outtakes from the 1974 debut album), or “See the Sunlight,” “All Night Long,” and “Whiskey Bottle” (left off the Straight Shooter platter), and “Smokin’ 45” (from the Burning Sky recording sessions), often had me scratching my head, wondering why the hell at least some of them were not included on those early albums. I mean, take the debut platter, for example, which originally included only eight songs that ran less than thirty-five minutes in total—certainly the “A” and “B” sides could have each easily handled one of the outtakes mentioned above, right? As much as I loved the “vinyl years” of music, an album’s side-length limitations did occasionally prove annoying, but never more so than when record companies didn’t “push the boundaries.”

Anyway, regardless of my historical “vinyl gripe,” this enjoyable collection clearly shows the high quality of the “original” Bad Company, the band’s top-level songwriting capabilities and each individual’s smokin’ performances, and it made me miss these particular musicians working as a team all the more.

(RIP Boz Burrell)

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