“I try to pick up the guitar every day because it’s my premiere joy in life.”
“Coming up with musical ideas has become much easier, lately,” says Robin Trower, calling from the comfortable cold confines of a hotel in the late-springing Milwaukee. In the wee hours of his latest American tour, the guitarist is busying himself with the day-to-day business of fielding questions about his storied past and undeniably bright future.
That Trower is making some of the most passionate and exhilarating music of his career should not go unnoticed. Though there remains a certain type of classic rock fan who can’t help but wonder about the British guitarist’s dance with major fame in the 1970s via the incontrovertible classic Bridge of Sighs, there remains a broader, deeper history to probe. Trower had been an ex-Procol Harum for roughly three years by the time he’d issued that omnipresent slab in 1974. A naysayer might insist that he peaked early but the wise listener and historian recognizes that a commercial and artistic height are disparate entities. A survey of the artist’s output throughout the remainder of the decade reveals a man and band aflame with the creative impulse. Albums such as 1975’s For Earth Below and the 1976 in-concert set (aptly titled Live) make it evident that the music proved especially kind.
Come 1980 the sales figures in the U.S. had become smaller but Trower’s vision remain charged: Victims of the Fury (1980) and B.L.T, one of several collaborations between our man and the inimitable Jack Bruce, proved that there was still considerable fuel in the tank. His output for the remainder of his second decade as a solo force became sporadic but remained strong. His unexpected appearance on two remarkable and underappreciated Bryan Ferry efforts from the time (1993’s covers collection Taxi and the following year’s ecstatically erotic Mamouna) are additional gems in a well-decorated crown. He re-teamed with Harum for 1991’s tepidly received Prodigal Stranger and appeared on the equally lukewarm The Long Goodbye.
Despite these ace performances, his heart remained in the world of solo man and come the early 2000s, he began unleashing a string of increasingly passionate and wise efforts under his own name. He rekindled his relationship with Bruce for Seven Moons (2008) and Seven Moons Live (2009). Though there was considerable fanfare about their reunion (a partnership that was, in some ways, more satisfying than the bassist’s partnership with Eric Clapton) Trower’s final appearance with his old collaborator came via Bruce’s 2014 effort Silver Rails.
That hardly mattered. The guitarist was in the middle of another renaissance, which included the chicken-and-egg Roots and Branches (2013) and 2016’s Where You Are Going To. His latest offering, Time and Emotion proves as innovative and alive as anything Trower has ever done: His playing, both in the realms of rhythm and lead work, continues to evolve and his writing has become more incisive than ever.
The opening “In the Land of Plenty” is an unexpected socio-political turn from the musician, a song that he says was rooted in real concern for the future of not only his native land but the globe as well. “That’s definitely a worrying thought about what’s going on,” he says, “especially in Western civilization. We should be doing more for the not-so-well off.”
The lyrics focus on the irony of how a sense of connectedness through various forms of media has also rendered us increasingly incapable of creating meaningful relationships and finding connection in the physical world. There is behemoth power with an unquenchable appetite, bent on absorbing everything in its wake. “Technology has improved our lives but at the same time diminished many things about being human,” he adds.
The human element remains central to his creativity and the ease with which he creates at present runs counter to notions of the muse retreating as one’s years advance. “The guitar ideas and lyric ideas on these last four-five albums are the result of my being able to spend more time focusing on writing,” he says. “I try to pick up the guitar every day because it’s my premiere joy in life. Ideas come quickly once I’m noodling around the guitar and having fun.”
If the leads heard on Time and Emotion reveal anything, it’s a man who continues to reach for the next height. “If there’s a gift that I have, it’s feel and feeling,” he offers. “I think I have a knack for natural composition in my leads. You’re always looking for the right melodies.”
Influenced by the blues greats and the Jimi Hendrix’s ability to weave a multitude of sounds into his own sound, Trower remains a guitarist who keeps us guessing. He rarely if ever bends a note at the expected time, his chord voicings remain a unique intersection of the major and minor and he responds to the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic environment with a spontaneity that lingers even across repeated listens. Though he receives praise for his efforts graciously he refuses to intellectualize them.
“It’s just what feels right, where the notes sit and how long they’re held but I do believe that if you can play a very potent phrase, it continues ringing in the gap after it. But,” he adds, “that’s just my feeling about it.”
If one were to attempt an analysis of his Trower’s approach to lead work, the oxymoron of planned spontaneity applies. For example, his work on the slow-building “If You Believe in Me” from Time and Emotion. “Being that it’s all about the atmosphere, I would come up with ideas ahead of time and then try to give it a sense of freedom. But I did want it to have a certain amount of compositional quality,” he notes. “I’m not sure if I’m striving for more or just want to keep coming up with stuff that tickles me. That’s what keeps the whole thing alive. That puts the energy into recording and live work.”
Trower’s presence as a live entity remains legion with an especially rabid fan base in the North American market. America remains a critical element of his ongoing success and one that he says he was willing to embrace from the start. “I’m fully aware of how much a debt I owe to American artists. All my musical heroes were Americans,” he says. “I’ve heard it said that black American music was the one new art form of the last century which you’d be hard-pressed to disprove. It’s a huge inspiration to this day.”
That Trower himself remains inspired and resistant to intellectualizing the art form that served as the basis for his career seems appropriate to a man whose latest release sums up the cross section his playing, that critical juncture of feel and experience. Asking for more or attempting to probe it at any other level may be a fool’s errand, the kind of thing that will leave the listener/critic emptier than if they embrace the art for what it is and what it stands for.