Paul Rodgers' Soul Man in Good Company: Concert Review

With his alto growl and good-natured spirit — plus full-throttle support from a top-notch band — the one-time Bad Company and Free lead vocalist leans into some classic Memphis soul and proves a worthy interpreter.

The British singer eschews blues and rock in favor of R&B on his latest album, "The Royal Sessions."

More than three decades ago, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd decided to mimic Memphis soul singers a la Sam & Dave on Saturday Night Live and then in The Blues Brothers movie. Only one small problem: neither Belushi nor Aykroyd could really sing.

It’s too bad they didn't ask British belter Paul Rodgers of Bad Company and Free fame to join them. Known for his reedy voice and bluesy chops, Rodgers would have saved the pair much humiliation.

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Fast forward to 2014 and, lo and behold, Rodgers has assembled his own crack R&B band and recorded The Royal Sessions — his tribute to the hot buttered Southern soul of the '60s, recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis. The album is primarily an Otis Redding love-fest with a couple of Isaac Hayes-David Porter classics (“I Thank You,” "Walk on By") and two Albert King blues nuggets ("Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Don’t Bother Me”) tossed in to the mix. With his alto growl and good-natured spirit — plus full-throttle support from a top-notch band — Rodgers pulls it off.

On June 18, he brought the entire band — 11 players and backup singers deep — to New York's Town Hall for a recitation of the album. Since there are 13 tracks on The Royal Sessions that would make for a short concert, and it was, clocking in at less than 90 minutes. Rodgers played 12 of the 13 album cuts, and sprinkled in one Bad Company number ("Can't Get Enough" with a predictable sing-along) and an Allman Brothers style slow-jam version of "Stormy Monday" for the encore.

Unfortunately, Rodgers’ thin alto is no match for Redding's gruff tenor. His take on "I've Been Lovin' You Too Long" was surprisingly subdued, almost detached and lacking in the original's bracing urgency. The same could have been the case on "Walk on By," but he nimbly delivered the lengthy Hayes version (clocking in at nine minutes long), accompanied by a string quartet. Another highlight was the only Northern soul offering on the album, an assured rendition of the Temptations’ "It's Growing," which Rodgers related he first sang at home when he was 13 years old.

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A soulful singer like fellow Brits Van Morrison, Stevie Winwood and Robert Palmer, Rodgers first steered in the direction of blues-rock with Free before dabbling in hard rock swagger with Bad Company. Somewhat forgotten, Rodgers is back on the map, playing the veteran interpreter and guide to the music that inspired him. It's just too bad that he couldn't find a way to integrate a few more crowd-pleasers into the set. The large multi-racial band, complete with four horns and two keyboardists, could have a lot of fun with "All Right Now" (the evening’s only nod to Free was the performance of "Walk in My Shadow," a deep-groove flashback to their first album) and pumped some soul into "Feel Like Makin' Love." But they were not to be. Rodgers is on a mission to establish his R&B bona fides with this nostalgic period- project. Mission accomplished. But what does he do for an encore?

Set list:

Red Beans and Rice (Michael Franti and Spearhead cover)
Down Don't Bother Me 
(Albert King cover)
I Thank You 
(Sam & Dave cover)
I Can't Stand the Rain 
(Ann Peebles cover)
I've Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now) 
(Otis Redding cover)
It's Growing 
(The Temptations cover)
Any Ole Way 
(Otis Redding cover)
Walk in My Shadow 
(Free song)
That's How Strong My Love Is 
(O.V. Wright cover)|
Born Under a Bad Sign 
(Albert King cover)
Can't Get Enough 
(Bad Company song)
Walk on By 
(Dionne Warwick cover)
Wonderful World 
(Sam Cooke cover)
I've Got Dreams to Remember 
(Otis Redding cover)
Stormy Monday 
(T‐Bone Walker cover)