Having the name Bonham certainly comes with lofty expectations but Deborah Bonham has side stepped the issue by foregoing the drums and instead concentrating on developing an ever growing reputation as a fine Blues singer in her own right.
With her band backing Paul Rodgers on this tour, Bonham`s opening slot was just her voice and former Robert Plant guitarist, Doug Boyle on acoustic guitar. That stripped down style acoustic show can be somewhat one dimensional but Bonham`s powerful, edgy delivery and charming stage persona brought the up-tempo What We`ve Got Ain`t For Sale and the sassy Love Lies to life. The moody ballad Painbirds showed the depth of her vocal talents with an impassioned, emotive performance yet she kept the best until last with an absolute killer I Need Love bringing a real Soul edge to her performance.
The whole concept of this tour grew from both Paul Rodgers and Deborah Bonham`s patronage of Willows Animal Sanctuary in Scotland. After a few fund raising shows together playing Free material Rodgers said that one day he`d take the show out on the road. When a badly treated horse was brought into the sanctuary barely alive and pregnant they feared the worst. Miraculously the horse pulled through and delivered a tiny foal who the sanctuary called Free Spirit. This was the sign that Rodgers needed who decided the time was right for a tour celebrating his work in Free and Free Spirit was the perfect name for the tour.
Paul Rodgers has over a career of almost 50 years created some of the Rock music`s finest moments whether with Free or Bad Company not to mention The Firm with Jimmy Page and also his solo work but it is arguably with Free that Rodgers is most revered.
To think that the legend of Free was created by a bunch of teenagers over a period of four short years from 1969 to 1973 is quite an incredible story and so hard to imagine such a feat occurring in today`s musical climate. That the music of Free is still so loved well over 40 years later comes as no surprise however due to the lasting quality of the music and performances captured on those classic albums so when the Free Spirit tour was announced tickets became like gold dust.
The decision to play in the classic theatres of the UK was an inspired one. The beautiful ornate hall of Sheffield City Hall was perfect for a show like this. Intimate enough for everyone to feel a part of it but big enough so no one was left locked outside.
With a set list built purely from his Free repertoire this was a show that was simply unmissable as Rodgers promised the hits, the classics and deep album cuts which were rarely if ever played by Free during their time together.
Rodgers entered the stage beaming with delight to an enthusiastic roar as Little Bit of Love and Ride A Pony got the show up and running. Woman, from the self-titled Free album was the first of many deep album cuts that had the crowd in raptures.
Hearing Rodgers sing a song such as Be My Friend is really a moment every true lover of music should experience at least once in their lives. The sheer soul and passion that comes from Rodgers is absolutely priceless and earns him the first of several, lengthy standing ovations.
While big hitters The Stealer, Mr Big and a smouldering Fire and Water were all greeted with a huge roar it was those deeper cuts that really set the pulses rising particularly on Come Together In The Morning, a song described by Rodgers himself as the best song Free ever wrote and who could argue with him after such a compelling performance.
Special mention also must go to his band for this tour, borrowed from Deborah Bonham especially Peter Bullick, who pulled off the near impossible task of bringing Paul Kossoff`s ground breaking lead work back to life. Kossoff would have been proud.
Saving some of the biggest hits until last meant a barnstorming The Hunter closed the main set with the anthemic All Right Now and hard hitting Wishing Well raising the roof during the encore.
Just when we thought it was all over Rodgers returned for one more, Walk In My Shadow from Free`s very first album Tons of Sobs ensuring that everyone went home on a huge high.
Quite how he does it is anyone`s guess but Paul Rodgers simply defies the ageing process. Not only does he look fitter and younger than he did years ago but his voice has matured like a fine wine in an oak cask. The power, range and that wonderfully Bluesy husky edged voice sounds every bit as good today as it did when he first recorded those Free classics.
What makes this show even more special was that this tour was done for the purest of reasons. At a time where there`s seemingly a dodgy cash grabbing reunion tour every other week from some long forgotten band, or sky high ticket prices charged for seats that require the Hubble telescope to get even the briefest of glimpses of the on stage action, the fact that Rodgers is donating all of the profits from the tour and sale of memorabilia to his beloved Willows Animal Sanctuary restores your faith in the music business. That such an incredible evening of entertainment by arguably the greatest vocalist ever to come out of the United Kingdom was done to benefit others makes this an even more remarkable evening.
Review By Mick Burgess
For more on Paul Rodgers visit www.paulrodgers.com
Willows Animal Sanctuary not only helps animals but also helps children with learning disabilities with the aid of animals. Visit www.willowsanimals.com to find out more or to make a donation.