Joe Bonamassa, Royal Tea, Provogue / J&R Adventures
Joe Bonamassa is absolutely at the top of his game in this tribute to the British rock that has always inspired him. Ten songs, written by Bonamassa and a group of top-class writers like Jools Holland, Dave Stewart, Bernie Marsden, and Pete Brown, and featuring Bonamassa’s hugely talented band, it’s a feast of blues and rock best played with the volume turned up as loud as you can take it.
Which is how Joe and his band recorded it in the famous London Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles recorded their White Album, Pink Floyd their Dark Side of the Moon and Deep Purple their In Rock. But none, it seems, had rocked the hallowed studios quite as hard as Bonamassa’s band.
Bonamassa’s career has more than a few iconic highlights – playing with B.B. King as a 12-year-kid, playing alongside Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall, playing Rory Gallagher’s road-worn Stratocaster at the Hammersmith Apollo – but recording at Abbey Road Studios was, he says “a bucket-list thing for me… making a record in London at Abbey Road Studios is something I have always dreamed of doing ever since I was a kid”
Bonamassa knows his blues history and in the liner notes he gives credit to the “British invasion” of the US in the 60s and 70s which breathed new life into the blues. Like many others, Bonamassa says he “learned the Blues from these British interpreters first then later discovered the original American Blues masters.”
So Royal Tea is the way in which Bonamassa harnesses his mature, creative energies and considerable performance prowess to honour the enduring legacy of British blues rock.
Bonamassa spent time living in London, imbibing the atmosphere and vibe in order to write the songs and feels that “it really does sound inherently British.”
The album opens in a stately fashion with horns and strings before Joe’s guitar throbs in and, with the ominous chord changes, there’s no doubt you’re in classic British rock territory. It’s heady stuff. The following title track Bonamassa says is about Harry and Meghan resigning from the Royal Family to lead a more private life, though reading the lyrics, I couldn’t quite see it myself.
Why Does It Take So Long, a slower, melodic number, gives us the opportunity to appreciate Bonamassa’s superb vocals. Clearly, he’s always been a top-class guitarist, but he now has the singing chops to match. In fact, in my view, Bonamassa has become a very fine singer indeed. Much, in fact, like his hero Eric Clapton, whose singing matured and developed over the years.
As well as the cohesive theme of British rock, the album has a nice variety and balance in the set of songs. There are heavier numbers like Lookout Man and I Didn’t Think She Would Do It, and then you get a song like A Conversation with Alice, probably the closest song to pop on the album, with its insistent guitar hook, cool groove and catchy tune.
Beyond the Silence is a blues song in spirit if not musically, with Bonamassa going from “I know I have my cross to bear…And out of nowhere I have these blues” to “Beyond the silence in my mind, I rise,” in the manner of a great many blues songs which start in tragedy and end in hope.
The rockin’ Lonely Boy, all horns and boogie-woogie Jools Holland piano, is great fun, taken at break-neck speed before we get to the final track, Savannah. It’s more Americana than British rock to be honest, but that’s no complaint. It’s a nice acoustically-oriented break from some of the earlier heavier numbers.
Joe Bonamassa’s passion for his art seeps through this album in every track. He has said of his music making that “even if I wasn’t making money at it, I would still do it.” In these difficult times, that sort of musical passion helps. John Lee Hooker said that the blues is a healer. That’s true of most music, when it’s played with passion and commitment. And that’s what you get with Joe Bonamassa.