Free: Free Forever
Free was one of the most distinctive bands to emerge from the British blues-rock boom of the late 1960s, albeit a one-hit wonder to the audience that enjoyed its biggest mainstream success, "All Right Now." The full-length version of that single appeared on Fire And Water (A&M, 1970), the disc that was three albums in for the quartet which continued, somewhat haltingly, through three more albums before finally calling it quits in 1973. From its die-cut slipcase to its multiple special featuresincluding interviews, conceptual videos and live performance footagethe two-DVD package Free Forever is as ornate as it is comprehensive.
The combination of studio and live performance footage by and large does justice to the band as it illustrates the development of a precocious young lineup that could hold its own with its more celebrated contemporaries, including bands led by singer and multi-instrumentalist John Mayall (with whom bassist/composer Andy Fraser played briefly), Cream and the original Jeff Beck Group. Unremittingly raw in its early stages, Free refined its sound to fashion a unique fusion blues and rock, maintaining a simplicity rooted in the former and harnessing the dynamics at the heart of the latter.
As displayed in the excerpts from TV's Beat Club, Free didn't rely on volume as much as a minimalist style all the more explosive for its restraint. Even more rare for a band with such an individual approach, the sound of Free was at once greater and lesser than the sum of its parts; emblematic of this was how, after the breakup of the band, individual members of the group went on to form their credible own groups.
Bassist Fraser was no showoff but nevertheless refused just to keep time with the elemental drumming of Simon Kirke. Paul Kossoff was not an eloquent guitarist but a player whose solos were emotional exorcisms (when he wasn't trying to see how delicately he could play). Paul Rodgers too was unlike the lead singers of his era, never resorting to histrionics but rather stretching his gusy tenor into a new and modern form of blues singing underlined with natural soul (hear the Otis Redding and James Brown in his phrasing). "Mr Big" and "Fire and Water" look dated with the overlay of visual effects on the spare stage setup, but the music remains fresh and vibrant.
Free's one flirtation with the mainstream remains an old-school FM radio format classic, in part because it's representative of composers Fraser's and Rodgers' savvy about songwriting. The duo knew strong material required more than just a good riff, and the chord changes mirrored an intelligent (though hardly profound) approach to lyrics grounded in straightforward expressions of longing, despair and jubilation. From Rodgers' honest soul to Kossoff's economical approach, Fraser's melodic innovative style and Kirke's bedrock bottom, the lineup of Free stood as its own best metaphor. The band never resorted to twelve-bar jams or static shuffles as did so many of its contemporaries.
Procured from a variety of sources covering the band's entire career, the content of Free Forever varies in quality even if the subject does not. In a reflection of their bare-bones approach to music, the band eschewed flashy stage attire as well as lavish concert production. Excerpts from Britain's Granada television are highly professional on every front: video as well as audio is clean and clear, while the editing, done in sync with the playing, enhances the motion within the music. In contrast, Free lip-syncs in some grainy promotional pieces, not even appearing in a piece from the final album Heartbreaker (Island, 1973) which trades in trite images even as the song itself, "Wishing Well," retains the basic signature of the band (at that late juncture of their history, without Fraser in the lineup).
A photo montage dedicated to Kossoff, who died in 1976 after a string of personal mishaps and problems, reaffirms the affection he engendered in his band mates. The tribute eschews sentimentality, as does Rodgers' written reminiscence on an insert that, instead of the usual color booklet resplendent with photos and essays, comes in the form of a large fold-out poster, inside the triple-fold case enclosing the two DVDs.