of the fierce twin-guitar knockout punch that fueled much of Thin Lizzy’s mid-to-late-1970s
era material, Scotland-born Brian Robertson – “Robbo” to his friends
– helped write the instruction manual for a unique hard rock/heavy metal guitar
sound that would, in turn, inspire and influence folks like Iron Maiden, Def
Leppard, and a legion of 1980s-era “New Wave of British Heavy Metal”
left Thin Lizzy when his relationship with frontman Phil Lynott fell apart due
to various disagreements, and he subsequently formed the hard-rocking Wild
Horses with former Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain. That band drifted apart after a
pair of albums that achieved moderate success in the UK, and Robertson moved on
to Motorhead, an ill-fated fit that quickly spit the guitarist back out on the
street. Through the ensuing years, Robertson would perform with Swedish rockers
Lotus, and with artists like Pat Travers, Frankie Miller, and Graham Parker.
from Robertson’s resume is a proper solo album, something that, these days,
every 20-year-old fretburner in a band considers their ticket out of obscurity.
Robertson released a six-song EP, The
Clan, in 1995, but he’d never thought of a full-length solo album until a
friend, listening to some old songwriting demo tapes, convinced the guitarist
that he had some gems amongst those old songs. Robertson got together with some
friends like bassist Nalley Pahlsson (from the Swedish band Treat) and drummer
Ian Haugland (Europe) as well as vocalists Leif Sundin (ex-Michael Schenker
Group) and Liny Wood, and recorded Diamonds
and Dirt in Stockholm.
solo debut is a rollicking collection of energetic, guitar-driven original
tunes and inspired, well-chosen, close-to-the-heart covers of songs by friends
Thin Lizzy and Frankie Miller. While some of the performances sound a wee bit
dated, most of ’em just sound timeless, capturing the same reckless spirit that
the 18-year-old Robertson brought to his first Thin Lizzy performances nearly
40 years ago. Diamonds and Dirt kicks
off with the title track, a melodic rocker with big roots, Foreigner-styled
larger-than-life riffing, and Sundin’s classic AOR vocals. As Robertson freely
tugs at the strings like a convict seeing the light of day for the first time
in years, Sundin’s vocals are complimented by Wood’s soaring backing harmonies,
her voice adding a wonderful counterpoint to Sundin’s vox.
and Dirt,” the song, could be a bit radio hit if FM still played rock ‘n’
roll instead of a facsimile and too-many commercials, and in 1981 it would have
been huge. It’s a solidly-written and constructed song, and a clear sign that
Robertson learned a thing or two at Phil Lynott’s knee all those years ago.
Ditto for “Passion,” another hard rock throwback with scorching
guitarplay, a funky rhythm that would make Prince blush with envy, and an
infectious chorus. The Thin Lizzy obscurity “It’s Only Money” (circa Night Life) is a staggering metallic
stomp with heavy riffs, Haugland’s monster drumbeats, and a gymnastic vocal
take from Sundin. Robertson’s solos here are simply stunning, underscoring the
vocals and explosive rhythms with fierce finality.
better-known Lizzy cover, “Running Back” (from Jailbreak, for all of you keeping score at home) is provided both
“fast” and a “slow” versions; the former is a joyful
reading that reminds of Frankie Miller’s best blue-eyed soul moments, with
honky-tonk piano and a rolling rhythm to carry the song along at a fair pace,
while the latter is a mid-tempo strut with Chicago blues roots and crunchy
fretwork, and a dash of the exotic via Ola Gustafsson’s elegant Dobro. Neither
version sounds like the original, and that’s cool with this rabid Lizzy fan
’cause both sizzle and burn like white phosphorus, proving both Phil Lynott’s
timeless talents as a songwriter and Robertson’s impressive skills as an
arranger and bandleader.
of ol’ Frankie, Robertson does his pal a large favor on Diamonds and Dirt by covering not one, but three Miller songs. The first, “Mail Box,” is a bluesy
rocker with a swinging rhythm, big screaming guitars, and jackhammer drums,
tho’ to be entirely honest it’s hard not hearing the incredible, underrated
Miller singing the words (the Scottish singer/songwriter largely on the
sidelines since a life-threatening brain hemorrhage in ’94).
It Till We (Drop It)” is an unabashed hard rock journey with roots in the
1970s, but would be comfortable in any era with nimble guitarplay and a buoyant
rhythmic soundtrack. Both pale next to one of Miller’s most treasured songs,
“Ain’t Got No Money” (a minor hit back in the day for Bob Seger).
Robbo brought in singer Rob Lamothe (Riverdogs) for this “bonus track,”
and Lamothe clearly nails Miller’s original intent with a gruff, rolling vocal
performance that is further colored by Robertson’s wiry, fiery guitar licks.
No, it won’t replace Miller’s considerable original, but it’s a hot ‘un
original material sits well between that of his highly-considered friends, and
displays a myriad of influences and styles. The engaging “Texas Wind”
features buzzing, rattling guitars that play like Jeff Beck, and powerful
locomotive rhythms that flow beneath Sundin’s vocals like a tsunami.
Robertson’s solos are at once both metal-edged and jazzy, combining the best of
both worlds in creating some sort of invigorating jazz-metal fusion. The
previously-unrecorded “Blues Boy” was a co-write by the guitarist with
former bandmate Lynott, the song a red-hot, mid-tempo British blues-rocker with
arid Texas roots and guitar that sounds like a cross between Stevie Ray Vaughan
and Gary Moore (another Thin Lizzy alumnus).
lone vocal performance comes via a performance of Jim White’s “10 Miles To
Go On A 9 Mile Road,” an odd choice from an otherwise overlooked
songwriter. The intro is Middle East raga with psychedelic flavor, Robertson’s
growling vocals spoken as much as sung, not entirely unpleasant but obviously
lacking in tone and nuance. Still, they work here, especially given the lyrical
construct, the song fleshed out by piercing guitar licks and vocal harmonies
that echo and fatten Robertson’s voice. The exotic feel of the raging raga
passages is balanced by shards of serpentine fretwork.
Diamonds and Dirt is an overall engaging debut, delivered some
30 years late, perhaps, but better late than never, eh? The guitarist clearly
has his heart in the right place, still bangs and mangles his chunk of wood and
steel with as much fire as he did in his teens, and has a fine way with the
words. There remains a large market for this sort of guitar-driven melodic
rock, especially in Europe, and I suspect that a largely-hidden stateside audience
exists as well. Make no mistake, Robertson’s sound is a throwback to an earlier, simpler musical era and that’s a good
thing. We have enough angst and alienation and darkness in rock music these
days…with Diamonds and Dirt, Brian
Robertson drops a little sunshine on our heads.
DOWNLOAD: “Diamonds and Dirt,” “Blues
Wind,” “Ain’t Got No Money” REV. KEITH A. GORDON