October 5, 2022

Live At The Rainbow 1974, it absolutely must be said, has to be one of the finest quality live recordings I have heard in a long time, especially for that era, when vintage recordings were often made in a manner which sounded as if they were being recorded through several socks.

Maggie Bell has been the subject of much recorded action of late from Repertoire Records, with their reissues of the four albums she did with Stone The Crows and also her two solo albums from the ’70s being followed by the excellent Stone The Crows Live At The BBC set. In an embarrassment of live riches, following decades without any official recordings of her powerful vocals with the band or solo, we now get several at once, with the latest instalment being this pair of live releases – both previously released but not widely available for some time now. It is extremely welcome, as Maggie was (and remains) the possessor of one of the finest British blues/rock voices to emerge from the 1970s, and the fact that she did not go on to have a high profile career into the ’80s and beyond in the manner of her contemporary Elkie Brooks (Vinegar Joe) is a travesty. If ever there was a candidate to be nominated as the ‘UK’s answer to Janis Joplin’, Maggie Bell would be very hard to leave off that list.

These two releases, however, are both welcome while simultaneously frustrating – but we’ll get to the ‘frustrating’ part shortly. Let’s have a look at these in order first of all. Live At The Rainbow 1974, it absolutely must be said, has to be one of the finest quality live recordings I have heard in a long time, especially for that era, when vintage recordings were often made in a manner which sounded as if they were being recorded through several socks. In this case, right from the band launching into the tremendous opener Coming On Strong, this is crystal clear in terms of instrument separation and sound balance, while also being so ‘live’ sounding that it almost feels as if the band have pitched up by your stereo. The bass in particular is so punchy that it drives the music like a finely tuned engine in an expensive sports car. Maggie’s band, including Pete Wingfield on keyboards, go through her own reworking of Free’s Wishing Well, a rendition of As The Years Go Passing by with some fine guitar work from the unfamiliar-to-me Brian Breeze, the impassioned I Was In Chains and the title track of Maggie’s second solo album Suicide Sal, in a tremendous opening five-song salvo. The pronoun-mangling Beatles cover I Saw Him Standing There is transformed from something of a throwaway album track into a cracking six-minute stomper which rocks like a veritable beast, before Maggie throws in her own crowd-favourite version of the innuendo-laden Penicillin Blues. There has hardly been a let up for a minute thus far in about 40 minutes of music. And there’s still time for the excellent The Ghetto and a climactic and lengthy romp through Shout (by the Isley Brothers by way of Lulu) to close things in a party atmosphere. The only real misfire in the set comes in the form of what is titled the ‘Soul Medley’, but is actually just eleven minutes showcasing Pete Wingfield on piano accompanied for the most part by Maggie and playing snatches of old standards like Ain’t Misbehavin’, Blueberry Hill, I Get A Kick Out Of You and The Way You Look Tonight. The pair of them clearly enjoy the partly unscripted routine, audibly having a great time, and it was probably entertaining for the crowd to watch as well in all fairness, but on record it simply drags. Still, one miss out of twelve superbly recorded tracks does not constitute a crisis, and this album is heartily recommended. It is a little odd to find the set so dominated by covers, given Maggie’s own solo albums and the excellent Stone The Crows catalogue, but the setlist is what it is.

Here, however, is where the frustration kicks in, as the following year’s Live In Boston 1975 sees Maggie in action in a small Boston venue (soon after supporting Bad Company at a big show locally), with a new and even better band now in tow, and the performance is an absolute stormer, rocking even harder and containing even more soul for your buck than the Rainbow show – but here’s the kicker: the recording quality is demonstrably worse, to a degree that it is distracting by comparison. The source is not specified (except for it having been found in Maggie’s own collection), but it sounds very much like a crowd recording, and is of the slightly above average bootleg sort of quality. And it is a crying shame, as it is obvious through the imperfections that the music is absolutely terrific. So much so that the show absolutely deserves to be heard, but it is hard to put it on an equal footing with its 1974 partner in terms of a recommended purchase. So the obvious thing would seem to be to advise any fans to get the Rainbow album and avoid the Boston one – but this is where the frustration comes in, because that would be to advise people against checking out some brilliant, if imperfectly preserved music. And I couldn’t in all honestly do that, any more than I could tell people to fork out for what is a much more ‘lo-fi’ item.

To be honest, the trick which has been missed here for me was to release these two discs together as a double, titled something like ‘Alive ’74-’75’. That would enable people to check out both performances, as they indeed should, without having been directed to a stand-alone item in such inferior fidelity to its partner. However, in the absence of that double release (at least for now), we need to work with what we have, and as such I have to recommend both of these to fans as must-own items, especially given the paucity of live recordings of Maggie’s performances. With that, though, must come a disclaimer: get both of these, as the performance in 1975 warrants your attention quite clearly – but do go in advised as to the discrepancy in terms of recording quality. If you do that, and attune your ears and your expectations appropriately, you are in for a treat.

It is without doubt well deserved that these performances have been made widely available again, in nice matching packaging, and a huge bonus to fans – but damn, I wish they had been put together with the 1975 recording more by way as a ‘bonus disc’. That would turn this into a near-five star release for sure…