Fire It Up
2 1/2 out of 5 stars
You’d be forgiven for hearing Steve Cropper’s first solo album in a decade and not knowing he was even on it. Since the guitarist doesn’t sing and has never been much of a lead player, he seems a sideman on a release that bears his name.
The backstory, explained at length in the disc’s notes, is that Cropper friend, producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jon Tiven had tapes of the guitarist casually jamming at various times over the past ten years. Tiven contacted singer/songwriter Roger C. Reale, among others, to craft words and full songs around Cropper’s riffs. Through the magic of technology, without the participants being in the same room and some communicating with each other, this 13 track set was constructed and given the thumbs up from the guitarist.
If you are a Cropper fan and know his work with Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG’s and dozens of acts in the Stax label catalog, among others, you may be able to distinguish his short, subtle rhythmic presence in the context of these soulful rockers. But you also may not. His playing generally stays on the back burner as he contributes a phrase here and an accent there, only intermittently taking the spotlight with input that affects the tune’s overall vibe, and never for very long.
What’s left is an adequate batch of rockers and ballads. The focus is on Reale’s gritty vocals, many of which sound like a combination of Steppenwolf’s John Kay with the swaggering strut of Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, who gets a songwriting credit for “She’s So Fine.” Neither Tiven nor Reale have nearly as much name recognition as Cropper, which is perhaps the motivation to put the guitarist’s name on the cover of an album essentially created from little more than impromptu sessions not made for release.
The material isn’t particularly memorable. Reale sings with commitment and Tiven, who contributes multiple overdubbed saxes to create the effect of a horn section along with bass and keyboards, is clearly working overtime. But the lyrics, many about relationships going sour, seem hastily written and the bluesy/soulful/country blend often sounds generic.
Three short instrumentals (“Bush Hog,” Bush Hog Pt. 1,” and “Bush Hog Pt.2”) feature Cropper improvising in a Booker T. style, but they only total five minutes. More where that came from would have made the legendary player a more integral aspect of an album where he is marginally present. Still, kudos to Tiven and Reale for cobbling together a credible and listenable release from the barest of building blocks, albeit largely lacking the titular heat.