Photos & Story by Scott A. Smith
How in the wide, wild world of rock-and-roll does he do it?
Rock-singing icon Paul Rodgers continues to defy time whenever he takes command of the concert stage. The Bad Company singer-songwriter and former Free co-founder quite possibly has the best-preserved voice in all of rock music. The perpetually smiling, seemingly-ageless Rodgers sounds exactly like he did in 2003.
And in 1993. And in 1973.With Queen’s Freddie Mercury gone, Rodgers possesses the greatest singing voice in rock music. Five words into Rodgers’ solo-band’s set on Nov. 13 had the packed, dancing crowd cheering inside the Tulsa Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s Joint. At age 64, Rodgers must have struck some golden, secretive deal with Father Time in a place where the clocks stopped ticking but the music keeps a playin’.
Always professional, the punctual Rodgers stood in the stage-left right’s darkened corner at 8 p.m. sharp. With the stage and house lights off, Rodgers’ band — former Heart guitarist Howard Leese, bassist Todd Ronning and drummer Rick Fedyk — quietly slipped into position. As Leese and Ronning stood at the front lip of the stage, they started the musical introduction to Bad Company’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy,” still standing in the dark. The bright, multi-colored stage lights zapped the band with Fedyk’s first, fierce cymbal crashes, and the audience’s first of many roars of approval rose through the amphitheater-shaped venue.
Next up appeared “Run With The Pack,” the title cut from Bad Company’s third LP. Rodgers signaled the bold song via his well-known piano-pounding intro. Leese and the cowboy hat-wearing Ronning, who also play as auxiliary touring members in Bad Company, interlocked their axes for edgy-yet-melodic song structures. The duo, like Rodgers and Fedyk, never once slipped.With the slinky grooves of “Mr. Big” lining up, Rodgers and co. quickly stepped back into Rodgers’ days with Free, the pre-Bad Company band that included Rodgers, Kirke, bass extraordinaire Andy Fraser and the late, great guitarist Paul Kossoff. Ronning nailed the persistent track’s mid-section bass solo, increasing his bass notes’ volume and tone grit by pulling on his strings harder as the song progressed into a quasi-psychedelic climax.
Leese also tipped his musical hat to his past, throwing in healthy, 10-second bursts of the guitar parts of Heart’s “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” at random. The six-stringer’s half-grin frequently was seen as he gazed out into the multi-generational audience. Rodgers, too, kept an attentive eye on the crowd throughout the upbeat evening. Spinning the long, silver microphone stand with one hand above his head, Rodgers never missed a syllable. He threw his back — and then some — into each song, as if the Tulsa show were his last-ever gig. “Feel Like Makin’ Love” thundered from the rectangular stage, as did “Burnin’ Sky,” ” Gone Gone Gone,” “Can’t Get Enough,” “Shooting Star” and “Movin’ On.”
Rodgers also focused on the present day, performing a moving version of Albert King’s must-play creation, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which can be found on his recent “The Royal Sessions” CD. Unlike Rodgers’ also-stellar show at the Joint in mid-2012, the concert featured a double encore. First came the moody, epic “Bad Company,” followed by a truly outstanding run-through of Free’s should-have-made-them-one-of-the-biggest-rock-bands-ever anthem, “All Right Now.” Ronning’s nimble knuckles and fingers worked his Fender bass into overtime for the tuba-esque bass breakdown before Leese, Rodgers and Fedyk returned into the fold.
Following that note-perfect display, Rodgers paid homage to Jimi Hendrix, performing a medley of “Little Wing” and “Angel.” Leese even threw in Hendrix’s famous three-note pattern from “The Wind Cries Mary” during the show’s final seconds. It was the best Rodgers solo show this writer has seen, and it came to neck-and-neck territory with Bad Company’s October 2010 concert at the Joint.
Seeing and hearing Rodgers again hit home what most of us music die-hards already know. It’s a downright felony that Paul Rodgers isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His body of work is every bit as impressive as Hall of Fame inductees ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kiss. Those three are good bands, but Rodgers’ sincere, from-the-gut efforts in Bad Company and the immensely underrated Free that are even grander.
And besides, what male rock singer, today in late 2014, can out-sing Rodgers? The answer is two words: Nooooooooo ….. body.