In a way, The Royal Sessions project is an enraptured testament to soul that Paul Rodgers has always been destined to release. His whiskey-splashed rasp was simply made for this kind of thing, even as his songs betokened a foundational love for gritty R&B.
But that embedded passion often found itself awash in other, more contemporary sounds — the heavy riffs of Bad Company, the sleek corporate feel of the Firm, the outsized stadium rock of Queen. The Royal Sessions (due February 4, 2014 via Pie/429 Records) stripped all of that away, leaving Rodgers to front a grease-popping house band of long-time Memphis sidemen, guys who played on the original sides featuring Al Green and the like. His gift, taken perhaps for granted after so many permutations away from these core influences, is revealed anew.
For proof, look no further than Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” as gutsy as choice as Rodgers could have made. The song was a monumental triumph for Redding — a nearly bottomless well of lovelorn passion that staggers, bloody and beaten from the emotional effort, across a stunning vocal range. Rodgers doesn’t simply inhabit the lyric, doesn’t approach it with the kind of artistic reverence that has become such a part of your typical tribute offering. He steps right into Redding’s injury, into his heartbroken spirit, and he makes those feelings his very own.
Every one of these songs has that kind of intensity of character, as Rodgers does interpret so much as probe songs associated with Isaac Hayes (a scorchingly sensual “I Thank You”; “Walk on By,” which dissolves into a bubbling cauldron of hurt), Ann Peebles (“I Can’t Stand the Rain,” given a hearty howl), and Albert King (there’s also a serrated romp through “Born Under a Bad Sign”).
The set’s most consistent presence, however, is Redding: Aside from “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Rodgers also takes impassioned spins through “It’s Growing” (a Smokey Robinson song that Redding set fire to 1966), “Any Ole Way” (which Redding co-wrote with his musical soulmate Steve Cropper), and the immortal “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” (where Rodgers’ hard-bitten exhortations are met step for step by the assembled band of veterans, led by the Holmes brothers of Hi Rhythm Section fame).
But it was Rodgers’ transportive brilliance on “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” a Top 20 R&B hit for Redding in 1965, that gave The Royal Sessions its momentum. He began this album by nailing this song in one scintillating take — pushing everyone in the throw-back confines of Royal Studio in Memphis, many of whom had no idea just who Rodgers was, all the way back on their heels. Now you can bring that sense of wonder right into your own earbuds.