Ricky Warwick is a man with a storied history and a great storytelling ability, a talent highly attributable to his Northern Irish upbringing. He originally made his bones with The Almighty in the ‘90s, going on to form (sic) after their first split then kickstart his solo career after their second. Since then, he’s dropped one album with the short-lived project Circus Diablo and four with the more recent Black Star Riders, a spinoff from his prolific stint as frontman of Thin Lizzy. In addition to Lizzy and the Riders, his solo output has consistently continued, leading us up to his most recent effort When Life Was Hard & Fast, which includes a separate full album of covers.
From track 1, the namesake of the album, you can clearly hear a culmination of the whole gamut of Warwick’s influences and experiences enclosed within a heavily Lizzy-esque shell. “Fighting Heart”, the namesake of Warwick’s backing band springs from a similar musical origin, while the sharp, rapid bruiser “Never Corner A Rat” amplifies those rough-and-tumble dynamics ten-fold, making it the perfect soundtrack to a pub brawl or a long ride in the back of the tour van. Conversely, numbers like “Time Don’t Seem To Matter” and “Clown Of Misery” strip down to bare, vulnerable acoustics, showcasing Warwick’s less pronounced heartland rock and country sensibilities with a woodsy, crackling-campfire vibe. These sonic standouts are balanced off by a steady base of Lynottian rockers such as “Gunslinger” and “Still Alive”, all together making the original side of When Life a raw showcase of authentic, versatile and deeply rooted musicianship.
Then there’s the cover side, packaged as a separate record called Stairwell Troubadour. Surely you wouldn’t expect or want Ricky Warwick to do songs of the likes of “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” or “Oops! I Did It Again” true to their original form, and you can rest assured he doesn’t. The pop staples are reworked to fit smoothly in the Warwick mold, effectively making him the rocking-est guitar player/singer at the Tuesday open mic or the Friday night rush at the local bar, raking in $350 in beer by closing time. His rendition of “Summertime Blues”, though done in slightly more Mellencamp-y fashion more than does the ‘50s standard justice in its unadulterated channeling of pure rock and roll; his cover of “Cocaine Blues” sounds just as pure and believable as far as outlaw country goes. The same goes for The Ramones’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, The Clash’s “I Fought The Law” and The Bottle Rockets’ “1000 Dollar Car” among others; it’s clear if there’s any two things that Warwick has mastered it’s the arts of awareness and balance. Awareness of his own sound and identity as an artist and the influences that forged it, and knowing how to balance those two factors effectively along with all the vibes and nuances of each track to make sure it’s done right every time; sounding correct, authentic and true, not going out of one’s way to imitate but not morphing it too much into one’s own work either.
When Life Was Hard & Fast is a solid prototype for what a complete record sounds like; not using any particular sound as a crutch, flowing and versatile, and done in a way that even when covering somebody else, Warwick makes you believe he’s lived and endured all the stories told in each song’s lyrics and is just casually, yet vividly recalling it. He pays proper homage to his influences, all of them clear and shining through unapologetically but never overtaking his own style. Everything is clearly done by his own interpretation, and obviously his original material stands out as well. Maybe there didn’t need to be that many covers, but then again maybe not. All in all, it’s a hell of an entertaining record, and a great one to study for today and tomorrow’s generations of rock-and-rollers.