Time for another one of my stories folks. So if you are all sitting comfortably I’ll begin. It is 1996, a Saturday morning and we are soon to begin the bi-monthly pilgrimage to Goodison Park to watch the mighty Everton put us through ninety minutes of turmoil . My lady of the time brings me a cup of coffee and the post, the most interesting peice of which is the monthly magazine from the Robin Hood R & B Club in Brierley Hill. So I start flicking through it as she is telling our friends how Everton have got to start playing the ball into Duncan Ferguson’s feet rather than just whacking in high crosses all the time as he is a much better player on the ground than most people give him credit for (see they do listen sometimes !). Now I’m sure some of you know what I mean here but you know those occasions when the world just stops turning for a second. Time freezes and you can’t quite believe what you are seeing. Well on that Saturday morning as I turned the page to read that Jess Roden was playing the Robin Hood that is exactly what it felt like. “Bloody Hell” I exclaimed “Jess Roden is playing the Robin Hood, pass me the phone …”. This of course was met with a chorus of “Who’s she ?” from the rest of the room. An exasperated me then explained to everyone that this was one of the greatest singers the country had ever produced. That he had disappeared from the music scene years ago and that until that moment I never thought I would ever get to see him live. Then I pulled a copy of “Play It Dirty Play It Class” from the record cabinet put it on and exclaimed “Just listen to this …”. Fortunately my football friends were well used to such musical outbursts and knew it was no good to object. So they sat back in their chairs accepted more coffee and listened attentively for the whole of side one before someone announced that we better get going because Everton wouldn’t delay the kick off just because some bloke called Geoff Roden was making a comeback no matter how good he was.
So fast forward a month or so and a group of us are excitedly sat in the bar of the Robin Hood some 50 miles from home (I would eventualy live opposite and it would become my local but that is for another review !) pondering on what the set list would be and basically behaving like kids waiting for Christmas. Eventually we went into the room where the bands played and got a nice position by the bar at the front. Some bloke who I didn’t know came over and started chatting to us and insisted on giving us a glass of his champagne (I never did find out who he was). The support band came and went, the lights went down and it was time. What we witnessed then was one of the most incredible things I have seen or heard in all my time involved with music. The place was packed to capacity. In fact I’m sure they must have let more in than they should have but no-one cared about the lack of space. Jess Roden came onto the stage and looked genuinely amazed. From memory he said something along the lines of “I didn’t expect so many people to come” and then proceeded to play a set which featured none of his old tracks at all but a completely new set with a few old covers thrown in. Obviously we had all been hoping to hear the classic tracks from the seventies but no one cared a jot. The voice was just as we remembered and everyone was totally captivated. The voice of Jess Roden truly held everyone spellbound. It didn’t matter whether or not we knew the songs he was singing. We were just glad he was singing full stop. In fact in all my time attending gigs I don’t think I have ever felt such an atmosphere. It was like everyone just became one, united in one feeling of total joy at witnessing the return of a true talent ….. and a nice and humble guy to boot. I seem to remember we eventually got an unaccompanied verse of ‘Desperado’ between tracks at one point but by the time we got to ‘Keep On Rocking In The Free World’ I thought the roof was going to come off.
What a night ….. but there was more to come. There was an album as well. Fortunately there were enough copies to go around, at least I think there were. I certainly got one anyway and now dear reader after all that preamble I will finally get to the point and tell you about it !
For some reason Jess Roden had never made the breakthrough to super stardom that his talent deserved and apart from a couple of low key releases he had been silent throughout most of the eighties and the first half af the nineties. By the time “Jess Roden & The Humans” hit the street it had been fifteen years since the name Jess Roden had been on the front cover of a new release and to be honest most fans thought that Roden’s apparent retirement was a permanent situation. In fact I wouldn’t mind betting that there are some who even to this day do not know of this albums existence as I am not totally sure it was ever available other than at gigs.
The albums itself is a nine track affair split between new material written by the band and well chosen covers. The band, or The Humans featured a twin guitar combo of Bill Burke and former Rod Stewart and Strider man Gary Grainger, drummer Leo Brown and Nick Graham who handled bass and keyboards as well as occupying the producers chair. Roden also plays the harmonica on the album. I believe from a conversation I had with someone many years ago that the original line up was going to feature Jim Capaldi on drums but I am not sure if this is the case. Although from the sleeve information it would appear that Capaldi and Steve Winwood may have played on the final track of the album.
Things get under way with ‘So Fine So Young’ a great bluesy track that has a nice chugging rhythm and immediately shows that time has done nothing to diminish Roden’s vocal ability. The band obviously have a great respect for Roden as his voice is considerably higher in the mix than on most accredited ‘band’ releases. The song slows down midway before launching into tasteful solo from Burke. A perfect start to what you already know is going to be a mighty fine album.
Things get even better with the first of the two slower more soulful tracks. ‘Surrender To Your Heart’ is quite simply as good as anything Roden released in the early years and his voice is possibly even better than it was then. The feeling and emotion is positively dripping and Roden’s pleas to let him come on home will tug at the heart strings of the stoneiest hearted listener. Pure briliance, and comfortably in my best tracks of all time list. Yes, its that good. It really is a perfect showcase for Roden’s talent as he takes the solo too with some great harmonica work. The band play their part in creating the masterpeice though with some clever understated playing which pushes Roden’s voice and harmonica to an even higher level. It really is a track that should have been heard by a wider audience.
The first of the covers follows in the shape of Joe Tex’s “You Better Believe It Baby”. This is more of a band track and Roden is a little gruffer and lower in the mix here as this time Grainger takes on the guitar solo.
The longest track on the album and one which may have been the opener at some early gigs ‘Before I Hurt Myself’ is up next and after a tasteful and atmospheric instrumental introduction of about a minute it chuggs into life with some great riffing and harmonica before Roden launches into a laid back and smokey almost lazy feeling vocal at around the hundred second mark. The song builds into a great workout for the whole band. One look at the composer credits here gives you an idea how good the track is as Grainger and Roden co wrote the track with Nick Lowe.
Two more covers come next, firstly Neil Young’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ which is pleasant if nothing spectacular and Willie Mitchell’s ‘Love The Life I Live’ which is far better. Starting off with a short bass solo it is another great vehicle for Roden’s dexterous vocal ability as it features some growly blues as well as some more gentle melodic singing. Despite that Grainger possibly steals the limelight here though with some great chugging blues guitar.
The second of the real stand out tracks ‘If It Takes Just A Little While’ possibly sees Roden delivering even more emotion in his voice than on the earlier ‘Surrender To Your Heart’. As with that track the band take a back seat and allow Roden’s voice to drive the song along. The organ at the beginning of the track sets the tone perfectly and Burke’s solo provides the perfect break mid way. The backing vocal choir behind Roden’s main vocal towards the end of the song is also a nice touch. Once again this as good as anything Roden released in the seventies.
The final cover is ‘Forty Four’ an old blues standard which is credited on the sleeve notes to Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf). Like so many of the old blues songs though there were several earlier versions and some of the lyrics go back to the original Roosevelt Sykes version. Starting off with an unaccompanied vocal from Roden before it launches into the now familiar chugging sound of the band it is pretty standard barrel house blues but it still a more than decent track and builds into a nice climax.
The rockiest track on the album is closer ‘Railroad of Desire’. Who exactly plays what on the track is not clear as I guess there could have been some rights issues but I would guess from the placing of an asterisk on the sleeve notes that both Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood play on the track. It features some great guitar and keyboards especially towards the end. The swirling keyboards could easily be Winwood and there has to be every possibilty that Capaldi is contributing to the percussion department and even the backing vocals. It certainly has a slightly different feel to the rest of the album but this may be down to the fact that it was recorded in a different studio to the rest of album in Stow, Gloucestershire. The remainder was recorded in London.
For a year or so Jess Roden & The Humans plugged away on the gigging circuit and after that initial show at the Robin Hood R & B Club I was lucky enough to see them several more times at some very intimate venues. They also returned to the Robin and recorded a live album before Roden again became disillusioned with the music industry and disappeared into obscurity once more.
Now as I write this on a wet and windy bank holiday Monday somewhere in the midlands of England some seventeen years after Jess Roden & The Humans was released Jess Roden’s fans are in line for another long overdue treat. Sadly there is no comeback due this time but thanks to long time Roden fan and music archivist Neil Storey a 5 CD career retrospective of Roden’s work is due for release any time now. With the blessing of, and contributions from, the man himself. Hopefully some of this criminally under exposed album will feature in it.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM May 2012