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All-star tour a Free enterprise for veteran rocker Paul Rodgers

Paul Rodgers | Courtesy of the artist

Paul Rodgers vividly recalls his first time performing in America. It was 1969 and the British singer-songwriter’s band Free was opening for rock supergroup Blind Faith. Free — which also featured guitarist Paul Kossoff, bass guitarist Andy Fraser and drummer Simon Kirke — had been playing together only a couple of years. Their inexperience showed. They were still using the same equipment they had used in small clubs in larger venues.

“It was a monster tour,” Rodgers says. “Our introduction to America was startling to say the least because we were suddenly playing these ginormous venues. We had come from small blues clubs in England and Europe. So, it was a bit of a culture shock.”

Stars Align Tour — featuring Paul Rodgers, Jeff Beck, Ann Wilson of Heart, Deborah Bonham

When: 7 p.m. July 29

Where: Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island

Tickets/Info: livenation.com

These days, however, Rodgers is a seasoned veteran who’s more than prepared. In fact, he is currently celebrating his 50th year as a recording artist. In addition to recording as a solo artist, he was the voice of ’70s hits and classic-rock radio staples “Can’t Get Enough,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy” as the frontman of Bad Company. Other credits include Free, The Firm, and Queen+ Paul Rodgers.

This summer he’s touring America as part of the Stars Align Tour, which also features guitarist Jeff Beck, Ann Wilson of Heart, and Deborah Bonham, sister of the late John Bonham.

“One of the things that connects all four artists is the fact that we’re very much live musicians,” Rodgers says. “That’s where our creativity really kicks in. So, I’m looking forward to having the best seat in the house when I stand backstage and watch the other artists play.”

Rodgers’ set for this tour will focus on Free, the band he played and recorded with between 1967 and 1973. In addition to performing Free hits such as “All Right Now,” “Wishing Well” and “Fire and Water,” Rodgers and his band will perform deeper cuts such as “Love You So” and “Catch a Train.”

“There’s so much material that [Free] recorded that we never played live,” he says. “It’s very exciting to play them now and see how far we can develop them.”

His backing band – dubbed Free Spirit – first came together for charity concert in the UK.

“I enjoyed playing with the guys in Free Spirit so much because they really dug into Free material and I really liked how they expressed it,” Rodgers says. “They have a lot of dynamics. It’s very exciting for me to revisit this Free music again but in a way that’s authentic and genuinely aiming to capture the spirit of the original band.”

That bond led to a Free Spirit tour of Europe last year. A sold-out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall was recorded and released recently in multiple formats.

Paul Rodgers performs with Bad Company in 1975. | SUN-TIMES FILE
Paul Rodgers performs with Bad Company in 1975. | SUN-TIMES FILE

Playing Chicago is nothing new for Rodgers. He fondly recalls jamming with Buddy Guy at his club and the time he performed at the House of Blues.

Chicago blues have always been a driving force for Rodgers ever since he heard artists like Muddy Waters and Junior Wells on the radio. One of the first records Rogers bought was “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells, who fascinated him with his harmonica and singing abilities.

Blues allowed Rodgers an avenue into songwriting. He began writing songs using the 12-bar blues structure. At 17, he wrote his first song, “Walk in My Shadow,” a song he still performs.

“Once I had written one song I had a burst of creativity,” he says. “So, I wrote outside of the structure of 12-bar blues, my own structures. It gave me a lot of confidence. Blues is such a dynamic and ever-changing system of music. I liked the 12-bar blues because everybody could play it, but they could also play it their own way and they could express their own emotions using that as a structure.”

Rodgers’ talent caught the attention of Kossoff, who joined him for a jam session one night at blues club The Fickle Pickle.

“We played some blues and we just clicked,” he says. “People said, ‘When you played together, time stood still.’ It was just a magical time. I said to Paul right there and then, ‘We have to form a band.’ ”

In 1967, they formed Free. After rounding out the lineup with Kirke and Fraser, Rodgers’ creativity continued to flow.

Paul Rodgers | Thilo Rahn Photo
Paul Rodgers | Thilo Rahn Photo

“We were just writing every day. I was writing all the time,” he says. “It was wonderful to go into a room with nothing and come out with a couple of songs. And for the band to play those songs.”

One of the most notable songs to come from those writing sessions was “All Right Now,” arguably one of the band’s biggest hits.

“I told the guys, ‘We need something that the audience can sing,’ ” he says. “Something really simple, like ‘All right now, baby it’s all right now.’ ”

Rodgers still has excitement each time he performs. He rotates between solo and Bad Company shows, the latter featuring Kirke. He doesn’t have any definite recording plans but is excited for what’s next.

“Music takes me where I go. I’m always open to wherever the journey will take me,” he says. “It’s taken me from the blues into Free and on to Bad Company and The Firm and all the other things. And now Free Spirit. I’m very excited about what the journey will bring next.”