24. Robin Trower, Caravan to Midnight
I’m just enough of a classic rock philistine that I tend to think of Procol Harum as the beginning, middle, and end of the success its musicians had, and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” as pretty damn close to the extent of that success. Shows how little I know. For one thing, Procol Harum released nine albums across their decade of existence (or initial existence, since all bands eventualy become reanimated corpses roaming the countryside of state fairs and casino music halls), every one of which charted. They had two other hit singles on the U.S. charts and seemed to be a fairly consistent draw as a touring band through the first half of the nineteen-seventies. They weren’t the Rolling Stones or anything, but they did all right for themselves. And then there’s the fact that the band did serve as a decent launching pad for a couple of members to go on to other things, most notably guitarist Robin Trower.
Trower left Procol Harum after the release of the 1971 album Broken Barricades, issuing his solo debut two years later, giving it the appropriately elliptical prog rock title Twice Removed from Yesterday. It went gold in the U.S., as did each of Trower’s first five albums under his own name. Caravan to Midnight, released in 1978, was the first that was unable to cross that threshold. This may have been a result of a conscious artistic shift that had begun on the prior album, In City Dreams, which found Trower trying to shake off the Jimi Hendrix comparisons that had long dogged him, mostly by taking a slightly funkier approach. Then again, the slackening popularity could be as simple as Trower’s piercing, bluesy, guitar-based rock slipping out of favor. After all, 1978 was the year that the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack spend twenty-four straight weeks on the top of the Billboard album chart.
Caravan to Midnight opens with “My Love,” with the clarifying if seemingly redundant parenthetical add-on “(Burning Love).” After a brief stretch in which the airy percussion rhythm is all on its own, Trower delivers exactly what his fans were hoping for when they dropped the needle: elastic, booming guitar work. Bassist and vocalist Jimmy Dewar, given surprising prominence, delivers the lyrics with the most relaxed wail imaginable: “My love is a burning love/ Burn ’til I make you mine.” In some respects, this first track is promising a solidly middle-of-the-road rock album, tinged with a yearning, polish-up blues sound. As it progresses, though, there are indications that Trower is indeed trying to push into slightly different directions, as with the stoner spookiness and faux mysticism of the title cut or the funk shuffle of “King of the Dance” (which even includes lyrics like “I was raised in the ghetto/ And the floor was my bed/ The rhythm of the streets was my daily bread,” in one of the least convincing expressions of urban dismay and danger this side of Glenn Frey’s “The Heat is On”).
For all the stabs at musical relevance, Caravan to Midnight never comes across as vital artistic reinvention. Nor does it seem like a pure expression of intent. It’s sort of indefinably muddled, existing somewhere in between the two. Trower and his collaborators may have been trying to for something different, to specifically distance themselves from locked-in expectations, but the performer is clearly most assured when he’s delivered what he knows best, as is the case on the cascading guitar solo on “I’m Out to Get You.” Even Trower knew that attempts to shift his sound weren’t quite working, later acknowledging, “I think by the end of Caravan to Midnight I’d run out of steam on that to be honest.” By his account, the crowds for live shows started to thin out at around this time, indicating a career on the downswing.
He kept cranking out new records at a fairly steady clip, including a couple collaborations with Jack Bruce, but it was all stalling the inevitable. After opting out of touring to support 1983’s Back It Up, Trower was dropped by his longtime label, Chrysalis Records, and entered into a long stretch of playing strictly to the most faithful. That’s one thing I do know about classic rock artists: there’s always someone out there willing to buy a new album from those who have circled the rock ‘n’ roll block countless times.