“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold…” In singing the opening lines of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ over the opening bars of his very own ‘Rich Kid Blues’ Terry Reid would appear to be explicitly acknowledging the fact that he will forever be known as the man who in 1966 turned down the opportunity to front the band that would eventually become Led Zeppelin. About to go on tour with The Rolling Stones, Reid chose instead to recommend one Robert Plant to Jimmy Page and opted to pursue his own solo career. It is a career that has since spanned six decades, has produced some wonderful, critically acclaimed recordings – River and Seed Of Memory are genuine classic albums – and provided him with virtually no commercial success. Tonight he is in the basement of an old snooker club in York playing to no more than forty people.
But Terry Reid’s is no hard-luck story. He is not a man to feel resentment, nor someone who has lived their life full of regret. He is fiercely proud of what he has achieved in music and clearly takes great pleasure in doing what he still does best; that is being a singer of songs. He opens his two hour set with The Beatles’ ‘Yes It Is’. Slowing its original time signature right down, Reid transforms the B-side of ‘Ticket To Ride’ from a delicate ballad into a beautifully haunting blues dirge. His ability to interpret the material of others, and to just about carry most any tune he puts that remarkable voice of his to, is further emphasised with his reading of first Marty Robbins’ ‘Bend In The River’ and then Jim Reeves’ ‘Am I Losing You’. The former carries you into the wide open spaces of an uncharted Wild West, one in which Reid is cast in the unlikely role of a gunfighter balladeer; in the latter he climbs into the very fabric of the song, sings just behind its lonesome beat and in so doing imbues it with a deep, deep yearning that is almost unbearably sad.
At his own admission Terry Reid’s recording output has been very sporadic, with him releasing only a handful of studio albums in nearly fifty years. He is a man in no particular hurry, you feel, and one for whom there is clearly a tendency to just drift along. His long, rambling yet vastly entertaining between-song-anecdotes are a perfect illustration of this. And ‘Night Of The Raging Storm’ (a relatively new song by his standards about the devastation wreaked on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina) just meanders along as he struggles to keep a beautiful beast of an electric guitar in relative tune. Later in the set, ‘Dream’ (a song from 1973’s River and which until recently when he played that album in its entirety at Ronnie Scott’s in London he seems to have completely forgotten about) makes a wholly unexpected yet most welcome of appearances, the complexity of its syncopated jazz-drenched chords proving almost too much for him to properly master. That he makes it to the end of this perfectly imperfect jewel of a song is testament to his durability, skill and dexterity as a performer.
You do sense that Terry Reid can see both the paradox and irony of having juxtaposed ‘Stairway To Heaven’ with ‘Rich Kid Blues’. Though the Led Zeppelin connection (and a very similar experience with Deep Purple years later) is the context in which his career is almost always placed, it is clearly something that has neither defined his music nor his life. You can still hear exactly why Jimmy Page wanted him as lead vocalist for his new band for Reid still possesses one of the greatest soul-inspired voices in contemporary music, resting as it does on an axis somewhere between vintage Otis Redding and Steve Marriott. But transcending even that incredible instrument of his is the fact that Terry Reid is a free, independent spirit and natural born survivor. Reid, who has lived in California for the past 36 years, returns to this country in May to play some more dates. Do yourself a huge favour and go and see him.