|Live Fast, Love Hard! - Robert Gordon
FUEL 2000, Cat. No.: 302 061078702 (2009)
Some of you probably remember hearing the Robert Gordon & Link Wray versions of "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucer Rock & Roll" on the radio in the late 70s. Most rockabilly purists preferred the originals by SUN rocker Billy Lee Riley (indeed Riley himself called Gordon’s version ‘wooden’ and ‘stiff’), but it was good to see that rockabilly was finally getting some airplay.
Which brings me to this release on the Fuel 2000 label, which claims to contain two unreleased concerts from Gordon’s heyday, one with the legendary Link Wray and the other with ace U.K. guitarist Chris Spedding ("Remember you’re a womble!"). The packaging is rather basic, with no information whatsoever about these two shows. Rather odd, as it was fairly easy for me to find most of the info after a bit of research on the net. The text by one Bill Dahl is basically a career overview, and the information in it is clearly sourced from Wikipedia and other internet bios. There are several errors in the text, including the wrong year for the reunion with Spedding (which took place in 2005, not 2007), and somehow Dahl even gets Robert’s year of birth wrong – Gordon was born in 1947, not ’46! Sloppy that, methinks. While putting the discs in the player, I noticed that the playing time on both discs is fairly short – both discs could have fitted onto one CD. In that case we could have had an early 80s concert featuring the great Danny Gatton on guitar, thus giving an effective overview of Gordon’s collaboration with the three most important guitarists that he has worked with. But there’s little point in discussing what could have been, let’s focus on what is actually there on the discs.
No doubt about it – the March 14, 1978 WHMS radio-broadcast from The Cellar Door in Washington D.C. on disc 1 captures both Gordon and Wray at their best; the band is phenomenal, and Robert’s vocals are immaculate. Sure, in parts the bassplaying does sound a bit too ‘seventies’, and at times Link also overdoes the guitar hero bit a little much, but the pure excitement and drive of the music override any such reservations. Robert Gordon never sang better than on this recording. A menacing "The Way I Walk" is a real highlight: the band is cooking (check out the amazing bassplaying on this), Wray’s tremolo-filled licks hit you like a stiletto blade, and Gordon just rides the song. He owns it. Another track that really stands out is Gene Vincent’s "I Sure Miss You". Robert’s singing on this is majestic, but Link snatches the song away from him with an earth-shattering guitar solo that really captures the man’s essence. Gordon is quick to recognize Wray’s brilliance, and shouts "Link Wray, Link Wray!" with genuine admiration. That moment really captures the magic of their collaboration. Amazing.
In fact, the whole concert is so good that it really strikes me as odd that Fuel 2000 did not release it in its entirety. There’s certainly enough room left on disc 1, which has a rather meager playing time of 39’58. Much of the dialogue has been edited out (including a charming message from Link to "all my guys who’s down in prison"), the band introductions (for the record: Jon Paris plays bass and Anton Fig is on drums) and even "Endless Sleep". There are edits between most tracks, which in my view destroy some of the live concert feel. There’s one duet between Link and his brother Doug, "There’ll Be No Other", but strangely enough the introduction of Doug has been edited out, and the fact that he is singing on this is not mentioned anywhere on the packaging either. Are they trying to pass this off as a duet between Robert and Link? Very strange. One final point about this show: Fuel 2000 claims that it’s unreleased, but that’s not correct. The entire show has been out on bootleg for years, and a large chunk of it was released back in early 2007 on LOTTA LOVIN’ (C.C. 003), on Robert’s own label Climate Change.
On disc 2, we fast-forward 30 years and catch up with Robert at a recent gig together with Chris Spedding. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this as I was about the live-recordings on Disc 1, but in all honesty I have to say that it’s depressing to listen to this show. As a fan of the man’s music it hurts me to say this, but Gordon simply sounds like he’s not up to the task anymore; his voice sounds worn and tired, and some of the performances display a very poor breathing control. Moreover, there’s no real spark in his singing, and for the most part his vocals are strained and rather stiff. He does a number of Presley songs, with varying degrees of success. "I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone" and "Suspicion" are decent performances, but tracks like "Don’t Be Cruel", "Little Sister" and "A Mess O’ Blues" are below par. Just listen to that line ‘Whoops, there goes a teardrop…’ in the latter song; whereas Presley’s voice is glorious, Gordon sounds like he’s in desperate need of an oxygen tank. Sad.
The band is not much help either. Spedding’s guitar is very loud in the mix, and unfortunately it’s rather shrill-sounding and unpleasant to the ear. The backing with Todd Glass on drums and Greasy Carlisi on bass is heavy-handed and crude - in my view it’s more ‘Jethro Tull’ than rockabilly. One of the songs that really would have benefitted from a slightly more subtle approach is "Hello Walls", which almost sounds like a parody of a honky tonk song. Again Gordon does not appear to be in control, and he’s clearly struggling on lines like ‘We must all stick together…’ (at 2’27 into the song), with his phrasing sounding rather awkward, possibly due to the aforementioned breathing issues. On most songs he appears to be having difficulty keeping up with the band, and especially on the faster songs it’s a losing battle. This is painfully obvious on "Rockbilly Boogie" and "Red Hot", both performed with the band on auto-pilot and Gordon sounding like he’s about to croak on stage. These two performances in particular are just parodies of earlier versions, and Spedding ends them both with some ‘guitar farting’, perhaps a reflection of his own assessment on these performances?
Generally, I’d say that this release is not without merit, but nevertheless it’s clearly flawed on a number of levels, which is why I would only recommend it to the hardcore Robert Gordon fan. When you look at the great work that labels like Bear Family of Germany have done with archive material, then this release clearly falls short. The packaging could have been so much better, and a booklet with detailed background info on both shows and relevant photos would have been essential to put this material into perspective. Moreover, the various edits on the 1978 performance are a real letdown; most fans will want to own the unedited recording of this electrifying concert, so it’s baffling that Fuel 2000 decided to edit out more than 15 minutes from the show. Finally, I think it was a judgement error on the part of the label to release the ’78 concert together with the recent live-recordings in one package. It’s disheartening to listen to Robert Gordon in such diminished state after having just digested the brilliance of the 1978 show. One really has to wonder why they decided to include this recording, as it certainly doesn’t do him any favours. Perhaps it would have been a better idea to combine the ’78 show together with the March 22, 1979 concert at the Paradise Theater in Boston, Mass., since RG fans have been clamouring for the release of that FM broadcast for ages. Now that would have been an amazing package!
As it is, I would call this release "The Alpha and the Omega of Robert Gordon", as it really captures the artist at his best – but also at his worst. For those wanting to sample Robert Gordon’s finest recordings, the first Bear Family compilation "Robert Gordon is Red Hot!" is a good starting point (be warned though: their two follow-up releases contain a lot of substandard material), and as far as RG live-releases go, the stunning "The Humbler" on NRG Records remains unparalleled.
Reviewed by Arjan Deelen, 2009