When the pandemic ensured guitarist Joe Bonamassa couldn’t give his latest studio album, Royal Tea, a live airing around the globe, he hired the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and invited everyone around to come to see him play there – Now, those physically present were in limited socially distanced numbers, but 44 countries tuned in over the internet and got to see the show.
Now that show’s available for all to partake of, whether on CD, DVD, Blu-Ray or double vinyl LP, and it cleverly tweaks the title of the parent album from where most of the tracks originate, and is called Now Serving Royal Tea.
The audio versions feature an orchestrated opening, soon overwhelmed by a back-breaking whip cracking riff, then comes down to almost whispered harmonised vocals from Bonamassa and backing vocalists as the song ensues – And, once it does, we are immediately reminded how involved English songwriter, poet and producer Pete Brown was involved in the Royal Tea album, and to how large a degree Brown’s collaborations with the late Jack Bruce were felt across it – More so, we wonder how if Ahmet Ertegun hadn’t been so enamoured of guitarists and Clapton hadn’t looked the kind of white kid he could make a poster boy, how the whole popular music scene might have been just that little bit different. Then, just as one’s thinking that Bonamassa rips up into a bolero Beck-patented style before ‘When One Door Opens’ returns to its main theme in a heavier mode.
The song’s not had much chance to be aired live, but already here it feels roomier and comfortable lived in, compared to the studio version. ‘Royal Tea’ itself is in a similar mould but more cloistered as it applies its heavy blues rock, bludgeoning down, and come the solo Bonamassa blaring out like he was Tony Bourge in the early days of Budgie, and why not, Metallica have built a mega-career doing so.
The overall sound quality fits into better shape from ‘High Class Girl’ on. This is a more classic blues, swinging tight, the various instruments interact subtly. Come the chorus we’re not just on a roll, we’re tumbling backwards and forwards over the bed with the wide-legged lover of our choice and if you feel a sharp whack to the rear its simply because the whole tune smacks of class.
Fuzz bass and a high hat follow crowd applause, then spacy souled noises as if this were some long lost desk-mix of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder jamming live with West, Bruce & Laing on the big bottomed wading tall blues rock number that is ‘Lookout Man!’. Yes, we’re still on a roll here, and once again the distortion heavy guitar is veering into Bourge territory – It’s like Bonamassa’s six strings have been quiet too long during the pandemic and need to scream and shout.
Some tasty organ and guitar solos are featured, and assorted vocal arrangements take the number towards its climax in a manner that seems to evoke Clapton’s classic ‘Let It Rain’ (though it has to be admitted Bonamassa’s playing is the more fluid) and to some degree the similarly titled ‘Standing in the Rain’ by The James Gang, so I assume they share similar chord progressions.
The wah-wah psyched intro ‘I Didn’t Think She Would Do It’ is another number that sounds like it got half-inched as a bootleg from someplace in the early 70s. There’s fantastic drumming coming on strong, all tight time changes and another one with a hefty swing to it, and time for a mini-skirted shimmy dance routine if ever there was one during the choruses. All this and freaky guitar work for the six-string lovers.
Predominantly acoustic, ‘Beyond The Silence’ ruminates and percolates, with gentle textures then wilder emotive crescendos. While ‘Lonely Boy’ old school feel-good boogie-woogie that sounds like they had fun playing, though it tends to goes on a bit too long, aurally. However, when the singular riff of Rory Gallagher’s ‘Cradle Rock’ blasts through the speakers, it’s a sound I could probably listen to all night long. Bonamassa might lack the raw attack of its originator and the arrangement’s a rather funky one, but it’s worth a listen, not least the slide solo.
Another cover follows, in a similar funky Chicago blues manner, that is even further removed from the stalking savagery of the Free original in ’Walk In My Shadow’, though Bonamassa does retain the basic structure of Kossoff’s solo. It’s not that these are bad just different, and it’s a good bet most of his audience aren’t aware of the originals recorded across this side of the Atlantic many decades back.
Somewhat ironically, the final number ‘A New Day Yesterday’ does fall more into more Free/Bad Company mannerisms before sliding into a quite delightful more familiar sounding cover of progressive rock band Yes’ ‘Starship Trooper – Wurm’, coiling gently, taking its time in stately ascension a fluid six string soling in keen explorative expression, with added gospel vocals, before it all comes to a resounding conclusion.
Joe Bonamassa’s Now Serving Royal Tea Live From The Ryman is available here.