Paul Rodgers, Jeff Beck and Ann Wilson – Stars Align Tour
with Deborah Bonham
Midflorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, Tampa, Florida • August 26, 2018
by Michelle Wilson
It was a typical humid, somewhat rainy Florida evening when the Stars Align Tour kicked off its last show of the summer in Tampa. The music, however, was anything but typical. There are some shows that are just pure magic, and this was one of them. Iconic recording industry veterans Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company, The Firm), Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds) and Ann Wilson (Heart) treated fans to a cornucopia of aural delights as they each wowed the crowd with their individual sets. As fans streamed into the venue, they were notified that the General Admission lawn seat area would be closed and seating would be provided for them. This was definitely a “seasoned” crowd and likely a welcome turn of events.
Opening the show at 6:35pm with a short but powerful 20-minute set was Deborah Bonham, younger sister of late Led Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham. Joined on guitar by Ian “Tat” Hatton, Bonham’s incredible vocals and impassioned performance provided the perfect prelude to a memorable event. Many people were no doubt surprised and impressed by the British singer’s existence, myself included, not familiar with her before this evening. After hearing her powerhouse voice, however, it is clear that she could have given Robert Plant a run for his money on Zep vocals. It was a privilege to hear her sing “The Old Hyde,” a haunting, bittersweet ballad about the family farm property purchased by and dedicated to her late brother and the home where she grew up, a home he helped build. I have every confidence that Bonham gained many new fans after this concert.
At just past 7:00pm, the mighty Ann Wilson and her band took the stage as she belted out eight glorious hits, six of them covers. Wilson focused on her new record (released 9/14), the aptly named Immortal, an album of covers from musicians who have passed on. Kicking off her set with The Who’s “The Real Me” and following it with Heart’s “Barracuda,” the 70s rock chick quickly made her vocal presence known and never stopped. Backed by guitarist Craig Bartock, bassist Andy Stoller, drummer Denny Fongheiser and keyboardist Daniel Walker, Wilson plunged headfirst into her blues-drenched composition, “Fool No More” (co-written with Bartock) before slaying five staggering covers, and making them completely her own. Playing acoustic guitar and tackling Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway” (for Chris Cornell), Wilson then took “Back to Black” (for Amy Winehouse) into unchartered territory with dark and heavy killer vocals that did the late Ms. Winehouse proud. “This is my gothic version,” Wilson joked, but she was quite serious and heartbroken when she mentioned Amy. She described her as a little girl of immense talent with a tortured soul, who had too much too soon and didn’t know how to handle it, but left us with an amazing expression of her soul.
She then took Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to new heights with a heavier rock sound, particularly with Bartock’s killer guitar. It was a major statement piece for its time from a singer who, as Wilson put it, was a 17-year-old in 1963 who had three or four big radio hits with light, safe, fun songs, and then all of a sudden, she came out with this – a “gutsy, ballsy move in 1963.” With everything going on in the world today, Wilson brought it out again to “offer respect” and to “cover all types of people.” Honoring the late Glenn Frey, who Wilson described as “one of the greatest songwriters of his era,” she mentioned how The Eagles’ “Life In The Fast Lane” truly described what it was like in the “sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll party days era of the 70s” and launched into her own fabulous version. Bookending the set with another cover from The Who, Wilson tore it up on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as only she could. A recent Florida transplant, she thanked everyone as one Floridian to another for coming out in the rain. She mentioned what an honor it was to be part of this show and graciously praised Deborah Bonham.
It was surely a thrill when The Maestro himself, Jeff Beck, appeared front and center at 8pm to crank out a smokin’ 75 minutes of mind-blowing guitar prowess and searing solos. Mesmerizing to say the least, Beck is one of the most revered guitar players in the world. He makes it look effortless as he bends his strings to achieve the perfect sound. His tight touring band included long-time bassist Rhonda Smith (Prince), iconic drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting, Herbie Hancock), singer/harp player Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie) and cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, and the interplay among them was a joy to watch. Whether it was Rhonda beaming from ear to ear while laying down the groove or Freebairn-Smith rockin’ out while caressing notes from her cello, there was a whole lotta fun happening on that stage.
The diversity of song choice ran the gamut and showcased Beck at his best. Set staples included “Little Wing” (Jimi Hendrix) and “Superstition” (Stevie Wonder), both with Hall on vocals, “A Day In The Life” (John Lennon/Paul McCartney) and of course, “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (Stevie Wonder). Other standouts included “You Know You Know” (Mahavishnu Orchestra), “Morning Dew” (Bonnie Dobson) and “I Have To Laugh” (Otis Rush), both with Hall on vocals, “Lonnie On The Move” (Lonnie Mack) and “Mná na h- Ã‰ireann” (The Chieftains) and “Brush With The Blues” (Tony Hymas/Jeff Beck). “I’d like to play a little short tribute to Jeff Buckley,” said Beck, and then he absolutely slayed “Corpus Christi Carol” (Buckley used the Benjamin Britten version for his interpretation on his 1994 debut album, Grace) while a rapt audience remained unusually but thankfully quiet as the doleful notes floated through the air. Just as the under-two-minute tribute was wrapping up, Hall and his harp reemerged to finish it out with Freddie King’s “Goin’ Down” (Don Nix). It was a fantastic set from a living legend.
As if all of this wasn’t awesome enough in its own right, the final act of the night absolutely stole the show, and the show was pretty darn amazing already. Paul Rodgers graced the stage with his presence at 9:45pm looking and sounding phenomenal, with little chatter and big vocals. His band, Free Spirit, included guitarist Pete Bullick (who also happens to be Bonham’s husband), bassist Ian Rowley, drummer Rich Newman and keyboardist Gerard “G” Louis. The main set list was comprised of hit after hit from the vast Free and Bad Company catalogs, including “Little Bit of Love,” “Wishing Well,” “The Stealer,” “Mr. Big,” “Woman,” and “Fire and Water” from the Free era. “Can’t Get Enough,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (with Rodgers on harp), “Ready For Love” (written by Mick Ralphs and originally performed by Mott the Hoople, his prior band, before founding Bad Company with Rodgers, who mentioned that Mick wrote it and that he “says he is doing well” – Rodgers also dedicated it to his wife, Cynthia), “Movin’ On,” and a spectacular rendition of “Shooting Star” covered the Bad Company material. Louis traded keys for acoustic guitar on “Shooting Star” and engaged the audience in a sing-along. Rodgers followed by gracefully thanking all the bands on the tour. “It’s been a great tour and we even had a full moon tonight. Talk about stars aligning! Thank you for being part of our Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy tonight!”
Closing it all out with Free’s “Alright Now,” this musical extravaganza came to a phenomenal end at 10:50pm, and I have every confidence that no one walked out disappointed. This was undeniably a top show of the year. Rock on, indeed!
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