In the Seventies, English blues rocker Robin Trower gained fame in large part for his skill at aping Jimi Hendrix. But Trower feels that he has more going for him than his aptitude at mimicry. "I think my greatest asset is the sheer amount of emotion that I'm able to put into my playing," he says. "Sure, it wears you out a bit. It does. But I'm only interested in 100 percent. I'm not interested in ducking it at all. So that's what I think I've done. And what I do."
When he was a member of Procol Harum, Trower's hard-driving, fluid flash almost pushed the band beyond the boundaries of its soft, classic-pop sound. Later he went solo, taking his Hendrix-y power-playing with him. Although he issued a steady flow of recordings over the next two decades, his name will forever be linked with his 1974 Chrysalis album Bridge of Sighs, a disc that regularly tipped its hat to Jimi.
Today Trower continues to put out his own albums--his most recent is called 20th Century Blues--but his highest-profile gig of late has been as the co-producer and sideman on the last two Bryan Ferry discs, 1993's Taxi and this year's Mamouna. Trower and Ferry, the onetime frontman of Roxy Music, were asked to contribute a collaborative cut to last year's Hendrix tribute, Stone Free, but they declined. After spending a lifetime in the shadow of the ghostly guitar wonder, Trower wasn't about to set himself up for more comparisons.
"[Hendrix] was a big influence," he concedes. "But at the same time, I think I had a lot to say of my own. And I'm still saying it, I think. As for the comparisons, I don't think I handled it very well at the time. But it doesn't mean anything to me now, oddly enough. It's just something that people say that I can say, `Oh, that's nice' back. It doesn't really mean anything. You have to be well adjusted to handle these things, and I'm very well adjusted and balanced about what I'm doing and what I'm trying to do. It's what I believe in, really, not what people write in the papers or whatever."
If that's true, then Trower won't take offense at the revelation that a conversation with this wild virtuoso packs the punch of a bowl of warm milk. He's very polite. Gracious. Nice in a very dry, British manner--one that suggests John Cleese playing the straight man in a Monty Python skit. The lyrics on 20th Century Blues are similarly courteous. Rather than reveling in my-baby-done-left-me-and-I'm-feeling-so-down blues formula, Trower aims for a tone reminiscent of the motivational proverbs one hears at AA meetings.
"My inspiration comes from my very strong religious beliefs," he confirms. "The lyrics are more gospel than blues, really." He laughs before adding, "Yes, gospel lyrics put to a blues background."
If this revelation calls to mind Debby Boone's claim that her version of "You Light Up My Life" was addressed to God, then you're on the right track. Trower states that he's been a practicing Christian his entire life and claims that he's never been tempted by a fast-lane lifestyle. "I steer well clear of it all. I've kept myself on the outside very much." This outsider mentality led Trower to release 20th Century Blues on his own label, V-12. The company's name is derived from a model of Jaguar, because Trower says his work resembles "the smooth power of the V-12 engine.
"I think this is the closest I've come to the real thing," he continues. "Now, I've always had my heroes of music--and what I call the real thing is the real rhythm and blues stuff before it got watered down to sell to white people. Subconsciously or consciously, my whole thing has been to attempt to get as close to that as possible while at the same time creating my own thing. I think with this album I've come a lot closer. I'm not saying it's close. But it's the closest I've gotten."
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To make this music, Trower put together a standard trio--guitar, bass and drums. The simplicity of the setting appeals to him. "There are other things I'd like to do as well," he notes, "but at the moment I'm just concentrating on this one thing, because it is quite hard to get up with a three-piece every night and deliver this music if you're not totally focused on it. I couldn't be working on a project that was taking me into another area at this particular time. I'll have to actually see the end of this series of shows and live performances before I could even think about what the next thing would be. Nevertheless, I think in recent years I've learned that the trick is to play to your strength."
That may be Trower's way of saying that 20th Century Blues sounds almost exactly like many of his Seventies efforts. In this way, he's able to please older fans eager to hear Bridge of Sighs material even as he inspires young musicians awed by his technical abilities. As an artist who came to the public's attention in an age that ate many up-and-coming talents for breakfast, he's survived, he believes, because he hasn't gotten caught up in fashions and trendiness.
"All you can do is do what you think is best and stick it out," he says. "Whether people like it or not is neither hither nor yon. You still have to believe that you did the right thing."
Robin Trower. 8 p.m. Saturday, December 3, Bluebird Theater, 3315 East Colfax Avenue, $16.50, 333-7749 or 830-2525.