VARIOUS ARTISTS – Steel Bars: A Rock Tribute To Michael Bolton

In the minds of a lot of people, Michael Bolton is a man charged with filling his career with easy listening pop, or crooning standards. He achieved massive success in the late 80s with his sixth album, ‘Soul Provider’, a record that showcased a man with a strong voice, but beyond the Desmond Child penned ‘How Can We Be Lovers’ had very little substance.

That track was actually a welcome throwback of sorts to Bolton’s musical past. Before he became chief executive of making a generation of housewives over excited, old Mickey Two-Haircuts had already had a full career by most people’s standards. His first two albums mixed west coast pop with AM radio friendly rock tunes and material that occasionally hinted at his future success as a best-selling crooner, but a run of work released between 1979-85 cast Michael in the role of a full blooded rocker. With his band Blackjack (featuring future Kiss axeman Bruce Kulick) and as a solo performer, ‘Blackjack’ (1979), ‘Worlds Apart’ (1980), ‘Michael Bolton’ (1983) and ‘Everybody’s Crazy’ (1985) captured a run of work that could easily stand up with the best of Foreigner, Survivor and their ilk. Given the ubiquitous presence of Michael’s later, softer works, these brilliant records have all but been forgotten – or more likely ignored – by the more casual record buyer.

…And its a couple of those great records that get their full due on this tribute disc from Frontiers Records, when a host of the label’s lesser known talents get to wrap their vocal pipes around some genuinely great AOR, bringing some solid tunes into the twenty first century. With the lion’s share of the material drawn from ‘Everybody’s Crazy’, ‘Steel Bars: A Rock Tribute’ automatically plays into the hands and hearts of the classic AOR/melodic rock fan, and makes it an ideal project for the musicians involved.

Leading the charge, Girish Pradhan offers a massive vocal throughout ‘Everybody’s Crazy’. With his sizeable voice set against a punchy drum and a wall of chugging guitars, the track doesn’t veer too far from the original cut, but Pradhan’s slightly more metal-centric voice gives it an extra kick, sounding like the gruff love child of Sammy Hagar and a rarely on-form Paul Sabu. He clearly loves the song – it’s one of the great rockers within the Bolton cannon – but he’s soon outshone by Robin McAuley’s guitarist Andrea Seveso who fills several bars with a melodic shred that, although not quite reaching Bruce Kulick’s peak on the original cut, has plenty of gusto; certainly enough to make this stand on its own merits. Everything considered, this could pass as a new Frontiers related band recording if you aren’t aware of its origins and heritage. With a similar crunch in places, but conveying more of a mid 80s AOR sound in others due to a massive increase in keyboard presence, ‘Can’t Turn It Off’ doesn’t skimp on either massive backing vocals or pompy keys, so much so that both ingredients are in danger of upstaging the vocal guest. Nevertheless, Landfall’s Gui Oliver wraps his lighter voice around a massive chorus with ease, before Andrea launches into another massive solo. Perhaps even more so than ‘Everybody’s Crazy’, the sheer chunkiness of the guitar sound and concession to a timeless melodic rock hook will make it easy for some to forget this was originally a Bolton tune, and it’s a real pleasure to hear Oliver wrapping his strong voice around something with an 80s vintage.

Digging even deeper into ‘Everybody’s Crazy’, the ever present Ronnie Romero applies a huge vocal to the Mark Mangold-tastic ‘Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over’, and his style is a natural fit on a tune where a slower verse builds nicely into a terrifically punchy chorus – very much the epitome of the 1985 sound – and Chilean vocalist James Robledo (Sinner’s Blood/Demons Down) sounds so natural on ‘Desperate Heart’, it could have been written for him. With a strong mix of chopping guitars and swooping keys, it’s one of the genre’s great tracks. With the Bolton recording taking a similar path to the best bits of the FM debut (‘Indiscreet’) this could have just as easily landed in the hands of Steve Overland, but it’s great to hear this lesser known talent making his mark here.

In terms of vocal performances, Heartwind’s Stefan Nykvist really stands out on ‘Call My Name’ since the spacious power balladry gives him plenty of room to soar. Despite not being well known outside of die-hard melodic rock fan circles, this track shows off a world class singer, and his huge presence really suits the piano-led arrangement. Even when the piano is augmented by some chunky guitars – very much taking the track into classic Survivor territory – Nykvist maintains the kind of presence you’d expect from a performer with three times his studio experience, whilst Andrea’s semi-bluesy lead guitar break offers a brilliantly tasteful musical counterpart when bringing a superb cover to a close. Stefan’s only really beaten by Steve Overland – a man who can always be relied upon to bring the goods. On ‘Fool’s Game’, the veteran singer turns the old Bolton number into something that could easily be an FM classic in an alternate universe. Overland’s golden pipes soar effortlessly through the big chorus hook, and his ever-distinctive style sounds just as great gliding across the verse, an easy match for great music driven by chopping guitar lines and a wall of stabbed keys. If a reminder were ever needed of how great 80s influenced AOR can still sound in the twenty first century, this is it.

Moonlighting from their band The Big Deal, Ana Nikolic and Nevena Brancovic team up on ‘Wait On Love’, a tune from 1987’s ‘The Hunger’ – arguably the album that bridged the gap between Bolton the rock star and Bolton the easy listening singer. Although their accented harmonies don’t necessarily work to the track’s advantage, it’s clear that both performers have decent pop/rock voices, and the happy-go-lucky quality they bring to this bouncy track is enough to make it work, despite a couple of questionable musical choices. A keyboard sound that evokes a cheap fanfare is a little unfortunate, but you’ll find some strong bass grooves courtesy of Mitia Maccaferri and it’s nice to hear the two women branching out from the melodic metal of their “day job”. Another of this gathering’s bigger names, Robbie LeBlanc also opts for a ‘Hunger’ cut, and in ‘Gina’, he’s able to tap into some top flight AOR, and much like the Overland track, his recognisable voice is more than enough to make this sound like a Blanc Faces off-cut. Those looking for solid, traditional sounding melodic rock will certainly find this an unmissable four minutes.

Clearly not feeling snobby about Bolton’s later shift into easy listening schmaltz, this collection even makes time for a couple of slightly softer numbers. Arguably this collection’s best known song, ‘How Can We Be Lovers’ (featuring Hi-Infidelity’s Dave Mikulskis) is played absolutely straight, but those with a love for radio friendly, 80s AOR certainly won’t have a massive issue with that, especially given how Dave’s budget Steve Perry routine and some very bright sounding keys are at the forefront of everything, and the version of ‘Steel Bars’ featuring Sochan Kikon (a newcomer at the time of release) works rather nicely with Kikon adding slightly more of a rock flair to the featured vocal. Musically, everything’s a bit thin and shiny – certainly put together on a budget – but the melodic core still shows why ‘Steel Bars’ was always one of the better “post-’87” Bolton tunes, and the fact that Bolton wrote it in collaboration with Bob Dylan marks one of music’s most unlikely partnerships.

There are times when this material could do with more dynamic range – the bright and punchy production values of ‘Michael Bolton’ (1983) and ‘Everybody’s Crazy’ (1985) isn’t always recaptured here – but the performances are strong and, at the material’s best, this tribute a welcome reminder of some now overlooked albums. It’s a nice, easy showcase for the vocal talent, too. Even if these tracks never quite reach the greatness of the original cuts, ‘Steel Bars: A Rock Tribute To Michael Bolton’ has its heart in the right place, and when it works, it really works. If the best bits are good enough to make people dust off that ‘Everybody’s Crazy’ CD and then backtrack to Blackjack – a period of Bolton history sadly missed here – then its work is done.

Buy the CD here: Steel Bars: A Rock Tribute To Michael Bolton

June 2023