On his most recent release titled Roots and Branches, British guitarist Robin Trower fully unearths his blues roots. He pays reverence to some of blues’ royal ancestry on an album consisting of six traditional covers and five new bluesy numbers, all of which contain Trower’s unmistakable guitar wailing wizardry. Trower has always maintained at least a big toe immersed in the blues, but on Roots and Branches he plunges in knee deep with amazing results. The chosen classics are all time-honored blues standards, more than a few of which are often used by blues players lacking familiarity with each other to find common ground for jam sessions. On Roots and Branches these easily recognized blues landmarks have received fresh arrangements, and Trower’s new songs are mined from the same blues vein, with each and every song draped with his signature six-string artistic flair.
The blues blueprint is established early as the album hits the ground running with Trower’s version of “Hound Dog.” This blues/early-rock masterpiece was written by the famous team of Leiber and Stoller and first recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama’ Thornton. It is most often linked to Elvis Presley for his chart topping rendition. Here it is performed as a twelve-bar slow blues burner. The exciting complementary integrated harmonica by Paul Jones is so impressive in its classy coolness that I have to make the assumption that this is the same Paul Jones who was once in the group Manfred Mann and is presently the President of The National Harmonica League. Paul Jones is a multiple winner of the annual British Blues Awards for his aural escapades on the instrument.
Trower’s guitar on the B.B. King immortal “The Thrill Is Gone,” owes more to the fantastic tone, touch, and lyrical vibrato feel of Peter Green or Harvey Mandel than to B.B. himself. That same sweet and soulful electric guitar timbre resonates throughout the album. Even to have a stab on a song so closely identified to B.B. King could only be attempted by an old hand extremely secure in the fluidity of his technical abilities. Performed at a slightly slower groove than King’s original, it still manages to capture the haunting beauty and powerful emotional impact that makes “The Thrill Is Gone” one of the greatest blues epics of all time.
A Robin Trower original composition “When I Heard Your Name” follows and has the feel of a Cajun swamp gris-gris ode with a hybrid of New Orleans Bayou Blues meeting traditional blues styles at the Crossroads. To comment that this song has a mystical power whose spell is powerfully cast by Trower’s Stratocaster is not an idle unfounded exaggeration. Chris Taggert on the syncopated tom-tom drum provides the rhythm for Robin to soar over; and he soars like a skyrocket.
Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” is raw to the bone, the quintessence of undiluted pure blues, performed at a simmering deliberate pacing. Hammond B-3 organ by Luke Smith percolates alongside as a counterpoint to Robin’s naughty searing lead slide-guitar tones. In Robin’s hands that Rooster does really crow!
“I Believe To My Soul,” has been oft-covered since its introduction in 1959 by music icon Ray Charles, but never as melodiously predatory as the treatment given here. His guitar lays in wait, spinning a web to ensnare the listener in its trap. Once again the organ sombrely trails behind Trower’s emotionally intense and articulate lead work. There are no wasted notes, as Robin bares his soul succinctly.
Another Trower original composition entitled “Shape of Things to Come” sounds like it could have been lifted from a long lost reel of unreleased Jimi Hendrix blues masters. The downward progression is uncanny in its resemblance to the late guitar master who has always been a guiding light to Robin and so many others. Trower has never been timid about giving kudos for Jimi’s integral influence, and what better way to pay his respects to a fellow rock legend? Even the curt vocals bear a suggestive air of Hendrix’s indelible stamp. Sincerely transmitted, this song is a clear indication that Trower still possesses a sharp skill at creating lasting and meaningful art.
One more significant song associated with both Elvis and “Big Mama” Thornton is Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama.” It is pliable putty in Trower’s expert hands. He moulds the song into a playful work of art with his roaring fire-breathing fretwork teamed with Paul Jones’ eloquent chuggin’ blues harp and Chris Taggert’s back-beat adding vital verve to kick it up a notch or two.
“Save Your Love” is performed with a passionate vigor that makes you want to reach for the volume knob and crank it up. It is a real soul-tugging slow Chicago Blues adventure that opulently captures the essence of the genre. The vocal is a bit divey and a little dirty and brackets with the expressive guitar like ham and cheese. Robin’s solo is unrushed with a pent-up tension that screams for release and will have you trembling down to your toes. Superlatives such as “highest quality” and “excellent” wholehearted apply here on this seven minute-plus gem.
Albert King’s famous “Born Under A Bad Sign” is another true treat. The solos that comes right after the vocal refrain “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” are striking in their conveyance of the unbearable sorrow that can divulge the darkest recesses of the soul. His less-is-more phrasing and remarkable bends of the strings echoes the vintage blues masters of yore with his unrivaled intensity and guitar swagger. Trower’s controlled trembling sustain casts an enchantment that pulls you in, and when the song comes to its end, leaves you craving much more.
Robin Trower has always been a master of the wah-wah foot pedal, and his mastery is on picturesque display on “Sheltered Moon,” and the album closer “See My Life.” His guitar weeps and moans with an unearthly persona that cuts straight to the heart. Their back-to-back pairing at the closing of the album ensures that Roots and Branches ends on an extremely high note. “See My Life,” in particular, stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest creations that Robin Trower has produced in a career full of great achievements and vast acclaim.
The vocals on Roots and Branches are almost equally shared by Robin Trower and his long-time touring bassist Richard Watts. Both gentlemen are more than capable bluesmen, and while similar, their smoky singing styles offer adequate contrast. The production values herein are superb, with a warmth and presence that brings to mind the natural enhancements enjoyed in analog recording.
Robin Trower has never been an artist who caters to musical trends or bends to the pressures of commercial demands. He follows his own course and those of us savvy enough to appreciate his remarkable skill tag along for the ride. I do not believe it would be an over-stretch to call this release a monumental addition to his catalog. The luscious rich and full tonality, phrasing, and unbridled passion that fans have come to expect from Robin Trower comes shining through on Roots and Branches. This valued release should be equally embraced by both the blues world and the classic rock community. In short, Roots and Branches is guaranteed to make you feel oh so good.
Robin Trower – Guitars, Vocals
Livingstone Brown – Bass
Richard Watts – Bass, Vocals
Chris Taggart – Drums
Luke Smith – Keyboards
Paul Jones – Harmonica