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Music Review: Alvin Lee – Still on the Road to Freedom

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I got my first look at Alvin Lee and Ten Years After when I saw them hard-charging through “I’m Going Home” in the film version of Woodstock. In short order, I began adding their albums to my collection including Ssssh (1969), which opened with the memorable “Bad Scene,” Cricklewood Green (1969), best known for the song “Love Like a Man,” and the apex of their commercial success, A Space in Time (1971), which yielded their highest-charting single, “I’d Love to Change the World.”

After Lee left Ten Years After in 1974, he produced a series of solo albums that continued to demonstrate his distinctive vocals and linear guitar chops, even if they didn’t always contain memorable material. But one standout was 1973’s On the Road to Freedom, which co-billed Lee and Gospel singer Mylon LeFevre. Supporting players included George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Ronnie Wood, and Mick Fleetwood. Now, one year shy of being 40 years later, Lee has released a sequel, Still on the Road to Freedom. It not only invokes its 1973 namesake, any Ten Years After fan will find more than enough on this disc to take them back in space and time.

This time around, Still on the Road to Freedom doesn’t rely on an all-star cast. Keeping close to the simplicity of roots traditions, Lee’s group is Pete Pritchard (bass), Richard Newman (drums), and Tim Hinkley (keyboard). Together, they touch quite a few musical bases from very old schools. For example, the beautiful, haunting title track is not only pure Ten Years After, it’s a reminder Lee was and is a lyricist who has something to say, in this case how the road to freedom never ends. “Back in ’69” is another standout where Lee tells us we’ve gotten older and have lost the values of peace and love once so cherished by a generation. This one, in terms of the lyrics, is very reminiscent of “I’d Love to Change the World.”

In the main, however, Still on the Road to Freedom is a musical homage to many of Lee’s inspirations. Lee blows Jimmy Reed-ish harp on the straight up blues of “Save My Stuff,” a nod to Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. The happy, shuffling rockabilly of “I’m a Lucky Man” is another tip to Lee’s early rock mentors. Remember, Ten Years After got its name in 1966 in honor of Elvis Presley’s breakout year, 1956.

Lee pulls out his acoustic guitar for the simple blues of “Blues Got Me So Sad,” the country folk of “Walk On, Walk Tall,” and the luscious Mexicali instrumental, “Song of the Red Rock Mountain.” The latter was a melody Lee improvised while testing a microphone and could never improve. He goes international as well for the African-drum driven “Listen to Your Radio Station,” which includes a sampled loop from the late drummer Ian Wallace.

Lee lets his band stretch out a bit for “Down Line Rock,” an instrumental jam with nods to Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Organist Hinkley also shines on “Midnight Creeper” with an ironic, seductive gospel feel. The set winds up with “Love Like a Man 2,” a remake of the Ten Years After hit with a completely new arrangement. According to the liner notes, Lee claimed the new version was inspired by Chuck Berry and New Orleans R&B player Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knocking.”

Recorded at Space Studios 3 in Spain, not all of Lee’s compositions are top drawer material. “Walk On, Walk Tall,” in particular, is a series of cobbled together clichés that almost signal this song was intended to be a parody. However, the overall feel of Still on the Road to Freedom is that of an artist who wants to share the best of what he’s loved in music since his childhood. But Lee’s distinctive style and voice also fill this project with original touches that make this album far more than a reworking of basic blues, folk, country, and rock. Considering that Lee hails from Nottingham, England, it’s interesting just how much Americana is in his creative well. Most importantly, Lee left Ten Years After in order to have musical freedom, and that’s the freedom he’s talking about in the title. Isn’t that what the better music of the ‘60s was all about?

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About Wesley Britton