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Album Review : Steel Bars: A Tribute to Michael Bolton: Various Artists

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Review by Andy Hawes for MPM

Michael Bolton is a name that most people probably associate with bland soulless soul-lite pop which is where he achieved most of his hits in the 1990s, but in the 1980s, he was an AOR artist of staggering brilliance, with his self-titled debut (1983) and his 1985 classic Everybody’s Crazy being benchmark classics of the AOR genre.

1987’s The Hunger was a lighter affair but still steeped in mega-classy AOR. But Soul Provider and Time, Love and Tenderness, while both containing some classic AOR/Soft Rock, were slipping into blandola territory and once on this slippery slope, Bolton never recovered, although he sold a bucketload of albums once he’d taken the bland soul-lite route.

So, fast forward to 2023 and Frontiers Music s.r.l. have released this tribute album with standout tracks from Bolton’s first four albums (most from Everybody’s Crazy) sung by a range of artists from the label’s roster.

This is a tricky one for me as I’m not quite sure what the point of it is, as those of us who were around in the 80s and were fans of Mr Bolton at that time will have the originals, which are definitive classics. Maybe Frontiers are hoping that this album will appeal to the younger fans who may never have known that Michael Bolton once rocked. Who knows? So, that said, what does it sound like?

‘Everybody’s Crazy’ kicks things off and is pretty much exactly like the original version. Girish Pradhan does a phenomenal job with the vocals, but he pretty much copies Michael Bolton’s phrasing from the original version throughout. That said, he does sound like he means it when he’s belting out the very high and challenging melodies and the band are on blistering form, which is a good start and it is a belter of a song.

Steve ‘FM’ Overland is up next with the quite brilliant ‘Fool’s Game’ which opened Bolton’s self-titled solo debut. Musically, this is pretty much exactly like the 1983 original, right down to the exact keyboard sounds. The only difference is that the guitar solo is a tad more twiddly. Vocally though, Steve Overland does a great job of putting his own stamp on proceedings by adding subtle twists to the original melodies.

‘How Can We Be Lovers’ is sung by Dave Mikulskis (who apparently sings with an 80s cover band called Hi Infidelity) and is a little disappointing. The band are on great form and once again give us an almost carbon copy of the original, but the vocal (fine singer though he clearly is) lacks a little in the ‘feeling’ stakes to my ears. Unconvincing, despite being an absolutely brilliant piece of AOR.

‘Steel Bars’ follows and rocks quite a bit harder than the original version, with the guitars up way higher in the mix which is exactly where they should be. Sochan Kikon is the vocalist here and he does a fine job. I’ve no idea what else he has done, but he has one helluva voice on him for sure. This is the first track where I’m actually thinking that there is some point to this album beyond the karaoke carbon copies simply because the backing track kicks proper ass and is way better than the original for that.

‘Wait On Love’ is a personal favourite from Bolton’s back catalogue so I was very interested to hear how this one sounds, sung as it is by the very talented ladies from The Big Deal. Once again, the backing track is a virtual carbon copy of the original (except for the solo which was saxophone on the original, but is guitar here). Vocally though, it’s a bit of a disappointment, as the ladies just don’t quite manage to lift it above the realms of high-quality karaoke, except at the end, where they let fly and do sound like they mean it. This is a shame because there is a proper groove to the backing track and the guitarist does a great job of lifting the original saxophone solo melody before adding a bit of hard rock twiddly diddly shreddy stuff. His playout soloing is bang on the money too.

‘Can’t Turn It Off’ is sung by Gui Oliver (Landfall, Auras and Mayank). Once again, the backing track is a carbon copy of the original from Everybody’s Crazy, but the vocal, although it also copies Bolton’s phrasing pretty much exactly, has a bags of power, passion and emotion in it.

‘Save Our Love’ is sung by Santiago Ramonda (Storm Warning), who does a pretty credible Michael Bolton impression – so much so that I almost had to check that I wasn’t actually listening to the Everybody’s Crazy album, as the backing track is pretty much exactly the same as well. Quite uncanny!

‘Gina’ is another personal favourite from The Hunger and here it benefits from a metric tonne of extra balls in the production with colossal guitars driving the track far more powerfully than the rather polite original version. Robbie LaBlanc (Find Me) is the vocalist here and he gives it his all with a very powerful performance – probably the most powerful I’ve heard him deliver!

‘Call My Name’ is the album’s ballad and is sung by Stefan Nykvist. Once again, the backing track is very close to the original, albeit with more oomph on the guitars and credit must go to Nykvist because he does a rather fabulous job of this. Nobody can do a ballad quite like Michael Bolton, but Nykvist carries this one off with considerable aplomb. This is the only track on this entire album where I genuinely feel that it’s as good or better than the original, as the extra guitar power lifts it considerably and that, coupled with an awesome vocal gives it that ‘something extra’ that the other tracks lack.

‘Don’t Tell Me It’s Over’ is sung by Ronnie Romero who does exactly what you’d expect of a singer of his quality on a classic piece of AOR.

The album ends with ‘Desperate Heart’, also covered by Starship. It was always a bit lightweight on the original album and it’s not exactly metal here either, but that said, it’s got a bit more oomph than the original and does have a certain something, although James Robledo’s (Freefall) vocal isn’t the greatest. I personally still prefer Starship’s version.

So there we have it. It’s a very well played and generally very well sung album and the track listing is absolutely excellent. The production is big, bold and brash and the backing band (guitarist Andrea Seveso, keyboardist Saal Richmond, bassist Mitia Maccaferri and drummer Nicholas Papapicco) sure have done their homework in getting these tracks to sound so very much like the originals.

The trouble is that I own the original versions of all of these songs and am pretty much certain that I’ll never play this again as Michael Bolton’s versions are so definitive. Good as the playing is, and there are some great vocal performances too, there’s simply not enough here to make me want to put this on the stereo ahead of the originals.

I suspect that will be the case for a lot of older AOR fans, but that said, if you’re into AOR but have never heard Michael Bolton’s AOR albums, then for goodness sake give this a spin, because there are some genuine bona-fide AOR classics here and the standard of songwriting is utterly colossal. You’ll absolutely love it.

STEEL BARS
A ROCK TRIBUTE TO MICHAEL BOLTON
TRACKLISTING
1  Everybody’s Crazy (Girish Pradhan)
2  Fools Game (Steve Overland)
3  How Can We Be Lovers (Dave Mikulskis)
4  Steel Bars (Sochan Kikon)
5  Wait On Love (Ana Nikolic & Nevena Brankovic)
6 Can’t Turn It Off (Gui Oliver)
7  Save Our Love (Santiago Ramonda)
8  Gina (Robbie LaBlanc)
9  Call My Name (Stefan Nykvist)
10  Don’t Tell Me It’s Over (Ronnie Romero)
11  Desperate Heart (James Robledo)

MUSICIANS
Andrea Seveso – guitars
Saal Richmond – keyboards
Mitia Maccaferri – bass
Nicholas Papapicco – drums
Alessandro Del Vecchio – backing vocals

order here: https://orcd.co/boltontribute |

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