By Ray Chelstowski
Few rock albums have a back story as rich and endless as the one that belongs to “On The Road To Freedom,” the 1973 release from guitar virtuoso Alvin Lee and southern gospel prodigy Mylon LeFevre.
If the story surrounding this country rock record ended with its origins in Jamaica it would have still have been legendary. Mylon had done a brief opening stint for Lee’s recent Ten Years After tour. At the end of that run Lee invited Mylon on vacation to Jamaica where they began writing songs and putting them to tape using a local reggae act as the backing band. Those initial takes must have been dynamite. I can’t imagine a barrel house burner like “Rockin’ Til The Sun Goes Down” injected with a bit of island soul, maybe songs that could have inspired “461 Ocean Boulevard.” We may never know…
Those Jamaican sessions were encouraging enough that the exercise moved to Lee’s English home, Hook End Manor in Woodcote. There Lee was able to finally begin construction of his home studio, later named Space Studios. The delays construction created moved early work to Roger Daltrey’s home studio and triggered a parade of all-star contributions to begin. When Lee and Mylon moved back to the newly converted barn, George Harrison had arrived with his sound engineer to help calibrate the acoustics and ultimately help put the finishing touches on the record. This led George to contribute songs and sideman duties.
The recording commune only grew with visits by Traffic members Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Rebop. Then came Ron Wood. Mick Fleetwood even added some drumming. It’s said that the number of actual A-list participants and their contributions were larger than published (including folks like Mick Jagger), but that referencing them on the album jacket would surge costs well beyond the already ballooned budget. In short, with this much talent the record was either going to be an all-out success, or a muddled mess. Credit Lee, who operating as producer harnessed all of that talent and in turn created an album that remains a critic’s darling. It’s fitting that there’s an illustration of him at the sound board on the inside of the cover. He delivered.
The album is a reedier take on American music than what we have come to associate with The Band, and a tighter more mature version of Blind Faith or Ten Years After. “The World Is Changing,” closes with a southern gospel shuffle that channels the soul driven sounds of Winwood anchored outfits while the song “Lay Me Back” has percussive elements identical to “Up on Cripple Creek.” They separate from these acts most noticeably on the George Harrison contribution “So Sad,” a strummer that kisses the sonic floor of America by infusing melody but by also keeping the pop sensibility level. Lee and Mylon provide the song with a full-bodied sound that keeps the song from being too commercial while making it the most accessible track on the record. This was the first single. It was followed by Lee’s “Fallen Angel,” a solid rock strutter and one of the few moments where Alvin is allowed to stretch on the guitar – a familiar fan fault with the entire album. His devoted Ten Years After loyals were starved for more of his fiery play, found really only on the title track. Frankly, it wouldn’t have fit any of the other songs. The second song, “The World Is Changing,” enjoys a musical movement that reminds me of Backless-era Clapton. It’s more Bradley Barn than Yasgur’s Farm. AND, where Clapton’s fans have always allowed for Eric to stretch his legs, Lee was only allowed to live on the fringes for very a short time. This album is arguably the finest example of his abilities there – especially on the first side closer, a waltz called “We Will Shine.” The guitar play doesn’t stab or sting. It rolls in and out of the melody, careful with a confidence that builds before your eyes. Over time, even the most loyal Lee fan has to concede to his exceptionalism here. He had a range and it was amazingly as broad as his restraint was parochial.
What really stands out on the record beyond the guitar work is Mylon’s songwriting and vocal range. He moves from a whisper to a roar with ease. This cat could have fronted any number of major ’70s rock outfits. Instead he quickly retreated back to gospel – probably because of the heroin addiction that escalated during recording – a coping tool for the different kind of fame he was quickly building. This may be the only counterpunch to the terrific stories that surround this album. A “raucous moment” is what they all say recording was – had to be!
The record should be a mainstay among collectors. Sure it has a big back story but more importantly it’s composed of really great songs that were made at that time by some of the best in the business. A British country ramble of sorts and in total a delightful spin, an album that truly has it all.