[4 November 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Out of all the countless imitators that Jimi Hendrix spawned, nobody followed the late guitarist’s example so faithfully, yet developed a completely distinct voice, quite like Robin Trower. After serving as the lead guitarist for Procul Harum over the course of six years and six albums, Trower ventured into harder, blues-based territory on his 1973 solo debut Twice Removed from Yesterday, establishing himself as one of the great arena rock guitarists of the 1970s, but kick-starting a career that is still going strong 35 years later. While the more flashy shredders continue attract all the attention from ‘80s-obsessed Guitar World readers, the Fender Stratocaster-wielding Trower’s understated, less-is-more approach flies in the face of convention by today’s standards, his graceful, expressive solos meshing beautifully with his effects-drenched riffing. It’s a formula that Trower hasn’t wavered from over the years, but it’s one that’s spawned some of AOR’s most unforgettable tracks, and fittingly, his prolific, vibrant 1970s output has been lovingly chronicled on the excellent 17-track Day of the Eagle: The Best of Robin Trower.
Cleverly arranged in non-chronological order, the 78-minute set smartly focuses on Trower’s heyday, especially on the five albums between 1973 and 1976, featuring the formidable lineup of Trower, bassist/lead vocalist James Dewar, and drummer Reg Isidore. Directly modeled after the power trios of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Trower and his band quickly developed a similar kind of chemistry, something more than evident as this compilation goes on.
From Twice Removed from Yesterday, we’re treated to the overtly Hendrixian blues ballad of “Daydream” and the insistent stomp of “Man of the World”, the latter of which hinting at the creative advances to come in subsequent years. 1974’s Bridge of Sighs was Trower’s biggest breakthrough, hitting number seven in America and spawning some of his most enduring tracks. “Day of the Eagle” is a scorcher, Trower’s virtuosic fluid fills predating the authoritative sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan by a decade, while the gorgeous, psychedelic-drenched “Bridge of Sighs” combines Trower’s bluesy bent notes with a more adventurous progressive element reminiscent of Pink Floyd. It’s on the latter track that Dewar truly emerges as the perfect foil for Trower, his husky, soulful voice adding tremendous emotional resonance.
1975’s For Earth Below gives us the vicious, wah-wah enhanced “Confessin’ Midnight”, carried by Dewar’s impassioned delivery, while the similarly murky “Gonna Be More Suspicious” is all Trower, his lead fills at times mesmerizing. Highlighted by Trower’s palm-muted crunch, the upbeat, almost breezy “Caledonia” is a perfect addition from 1976’s Long Misty Days, while the album’s sumptuous title track is arguably the best ballad the trio ever recorded, Trower’s low, doomy guitar meshing beautifully with Dewar’s impassioned singing. When classic tracks are replaced by live versions on compilations, it’s often met by protests from longtime fans, but considering just how strong Trower’s trio is on 1976’s Robin Trower Live!, there won’t be many complaints. Dewar sounds fantastic on the strident “Alethea”, Isidore unleashes a 1970s-style drum solo at the end of “Rock Me, Baby”, while Trower literally tears it up on his signature tune “Too Rolling Stoned”, during which he and his two mates feed off each other like few trios ever could.
Trower’s attempt at a more accessible sound on 1977’s In City Dreams, while blatant, was nevertheless effective, as its languid title track attests, while the contemplative 1978 instrumental “Caravan to Midnight” and the darker-toned “The Ring”, as well as the title track from 1980’s Victims of the Fury round out the collection. We’re treated to one rarity on Day of the Eagle, and it’s a great one, as the ferocious 1973 b-side “Take a Fast Train” follows the lead of Hendrix’s “Fire”. While Trower aficionados might have a bone to pick with the track selections (no compilation can ever satisfy everyone), at 78 minutes with not a minute wasted, this is nevertheless as solid a Trower primer as anyone can ask for—though if you ask anyone, the landmark Bridge of Sighs should definitely be the next step for a curious new listener.