Wednesday 16 December 2020

Joe Bonamassa - Royal Tea (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Oct 2020
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Joe Bonamassa has had quite the career: playing Stevie Ray Vaughan's Scuttle Buttin' at six and being B. B. King's opening act at twelve. The key snippet of trivia that seems to apply here is that, in 2013, he played four shows in London with three different backing bands to showcase different aspects of his music. It's that versatility that pervades this album, which is surely why the opener is the opener, instead of the title track. The way it starts out, it's a blues album, a pop album and a rock album all at once, and it only adds genres from there.

Now, there are blues rockers here like we might expect from Bonamassa but they don't kick things off. When One Door Opens kicks things off in a rather varied style. It's the longest song on the album and it constantly morphs, from movie soundtrack to rock song but becomes pop song when the vocals are introduced, with a delicate female voice effectively echoing the male lead. The effect is rather like an epic Beatles suite, with strings and chimes and constant invention, but it's also a heavy song when it wants to be, with some powerful riffs and a drum section borrowed from Diamond Head's Am I Evil?

Maybe it's appropriate to kick off like the Beatles when you recorded at Abbey Road, but it's the title track that points the way forward. While Bonamassa has acknowledged influences from the American originals, what drives him is apparently the British bluesmen who took the blues to Blighty and reinvented it to fuel the next generation of rock music. This song sounds quintessentially British and, while I'm not sure who plays on it, it certainly channels the heavy British blues sound of Cream with a side of the Rolling Stones.

I do know that Bernie Marsden plays on here somewhere and I'll be shocked if it isn't on Why Does It Take So Long to Say Goodbye at the very least. This is one of four songs he co-wrote and it often feels like an old school Whitesnake blues rock number, part emotional ballad and part searing rocker. Two of the others are High Class Girl and I Didn't Think She Would Do It, both blues rockers and with the latter easily the most overt such on the album.

While the blues is the basis for everything from Royal Tea onwards, it's consistently the British blues that Bonamassa wants to explore here and that means that there's still considerable variety on offer. Lookout Man! is a blues stomper with what I can only assume is a guitar that's masquerading as bass. It's an emphatic song, the sort that feels like a weaker effort but gets under your skin anyway and you end up seeking out, like Midnight Rambler. Lonely Boy is a rock 'n' roll song, with guest honky tonk piano from Jools Holland and with Dave Stewart in there somewhere too.

I can't place all the influences but there are many and I can tell that it's not so straightforward as for this song to be like John Mayall and that one to channel Rory Gallagher. Both are all over the album, along with Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeff Beck and others. Oddly, or perhaps not, this is really about the songs rather than the solos, because there aren't as many of the latter as I'd have expected.

And, even if everything is supposed to be British, there's some clear American influence here too. The most obvious is Savannah, which is emphatically southern rock with a hefty side of country, but I feel an epic southern rock flavour in Beyond the Silence, possibly my favourite song here. It doesn't sound like Molly Hatchet but it feels like the sort of song they'd write, just without anyone playing chicken picking guitar or providing an extended guitar workout to take us home.

As these are two of the last three songs, I wonder if it's Bonamassa looking back on his British album with pride and simultaneously looking forward to his return to the States. After all, he's always been a prolific artist who moves from one project to another. One minute he's playing in a hard rock band, Black Country Communion, the next he's collaborating with Beth Hart or Mahalia Barnes, with Rock Candy Funk Party always floating in his mind. This is a enjoyably varied British blues album but that clearly isn't all it is.

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