Paul Rodgers still has that six-gun in his hand, at least in spirit. On Midnight Rose, his first solo album of new material since 2000, he whips it out again on “Highway Robber”, a tale of the reluctant outlaw. (Is there any other kind?) It’s one of the highlights of a collection that signals the return of one of rock’s greatest voices, which remarkably has not diminished over the decades and remains as expressive and powerful as ever, even if the material doesn’t always match those golden vocal cords.
Rodgers’ voice commanded attention as far back as those muscular blues-rock excursions from the mighty Free as he belted out the timeless “All Right Now” from hot rods and hi-fis throughout the US, UK, and beyond at the dawn of the 1970s. It’s the voice, through Bad Company, that was a mainstay on the playlists of many an album rock station throughout the 1970s and has been a constant on classic rock stations ever since. It’s the voice that teamed with Jimmy Page to form the Firm, a short-lived semi-supergroup that gave us two gloriously off-kilter slabs of hard rock square in the middle of the 1980s. It’s also the voice that gave us the Law, an even shorter-lived semi-not-really-that-super-of-a-group with Kenney Jones, the drummer of the Small Faces, Faces, and the Who, that lasted only one album in 1991. And then there was that Queen thing, which… well… let’s move on.
In 1993, Rodgers gathered a who’s-who of hot guitarists, from Jeff Beck to Buddy Guy, Slash to Brian Setzer, for Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters. (It’s still Rodgers’ best and most impassioned turn as a solo artist.) With 1997’s Now and 2000’s Electric, Rodgers offered up two solid, if imperfect, efforts that proved he could still churn out blues-based rock ‘n’ roll in the age of post-grunge and alternative rock. Midnight Rose follows the trail left by those two (after a detour through the soul songbook with the sturdy Royal Sessions in 2014). While it may not rise to the level of his work with Free and Bad Company (and what could?), Its highlights are more potent than the best parts of both Now and Electric.
Midnight Rose was recorded in British Columbia with a core unit including guitarists Ray Roper and Keith Scott, Chris Gestrin on organ, bassist Todd Ronning, and drummer Rick Fedyk, with Bob Rock and Cynthia Rodgers producing and Randy Staub mixing. Much was made on Rodgers’ socials about the imagery of the album cover and how each photo represented a part of his past, especially his youth. It’s the looking back we all do the more we travel along. Rodgers has made a career out of movement, from Free’s “I’m a Mover”, “The Highway Song”, and “Travelin’ Man” to Bad Company’s “Movin’ On” and beyond. On Midnight Rose, however, he seems to enjoy looking back and taking stock finally. The record opens with “Coming Home”, after all. Promisingly, the music still rocks as expected, and that damn peerless voice still soars like no other; the sentiment is well-noted.
The best parts of Midnight Rose are scattered throughout, which thankfully diminishes the impact of its weaker moments. While “Coming Home” is the kind of opener one hopes for, the invigorating hard rock of “Photo Shooter” almost rescues its lyrics but not quite. A song about a mercenary photographer capturing “breaking news” before anyone else is hardly a novel concept in 2023. The first single, “Living It Up”, plays up Rodgers’ commitment to soul and early rock’ n’ roll – an allegiance that’s hammered home by the fact that the LP was released on the legendary Sun Records – but its celebratory lyrics rest too heavily and naively on nostalgia. While “Dance in the Sun” is pleasant enough, it’s mostly forgotten as soon as it’s done.
More successful is the subtle yet anthemic title track, the ferocious power of “Take Love”, and the tension-building closer, “Melting”. In what sounds like an outtake from the Firm days, Paul Rodgers hits his stride here, making you wish Midnight Rose was just a song or two longer (it clocks in just over a half-hour) or at least leaned more toward this type of material.