June 1, 2021

Bonamassa’s new live album Now Serving: Royal Tea – Live From The Ryman, is available on CD, DVD, Blu-Ray and double vinyl. The CD is a huge 79 minutes long, with the DVD exceeding that by a further 15 minutes due to the addition of a spoken-word intro by actor Jeff Daniels, (interspersed with interview footage of Bonamassa himself), plus some extended closing credits. In the DVD, Bonamassa explains how their latest studio album, Royal Tea, was plagued with difficulties, starting when his ace drummer Anton Fig broke his ankle in the summer of 2019. Recording was delayed until January 2020, fortuitously completed just before the world went into meltdown due to the Covid crisis in March – mixing and mastering was actually accomplished during the first lockdown.  With Bonamassa’s plans to tour the album knocked on the head, he and his crew decided to stream this live performance of the album instead, which was recorded at The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, within walking distance of the guitarist’s home, a week before the studio album’s official release in October 2020.

Photo by Kit Wood

If you have read our review of Royal Tea, then you’ll know that in this reviewer’s opinion, it’s the best work he’s ever laid down. But it’s tempting to assume he may have shot himself in the foot this time, as a live rendering of Royal Tea can hardly fail to fall short of the studio version. Nevertheless, he once again manages to nail it – partly due to the fact that this version is not really, totally live. Let me explain… The disadvantage of the live-stream format is, of course, that there is no actual audience, which effectively removes all the atmosphere of a live performance. The advantage is that, without any crowd noise or interference for the engineers to worry about, the listener is treated to the band performing on-stage in real time, but with top-notch production values. So how did they measure up?

Well, as with anything even vaguely Joe-related, they did brilliantly. The empty auditorium was populated on the night with 1,700 cardboard cut-out photos of real people, printed life-size and stuck to the seats. For the sake of atmosphere, recordings of audience reactions from previous gigs are pasted in at the end of each track – which is acceptable if the production is honest about it, and indeed, the DVD features subtitles at the end of each number, clearly stating which gig the applause is taken from! The orchestral introduction to the album’s epic first track is also edited in at the beginning of the gig, so the performance proper starts when Joe plays the introductory guitar riff to the full band section of When One Door Opens. It’s a stunning opening number in any case, morphing from classical, through blues-rock, a military march and heavy metal riffage, to a prog-fusion solo at the end. The track is three quarters of a minute longer than the album version, and its final notes are followed by recorded applause, subtitled on the DVD lest there should be any accusation of duplicity. Nevertheless, it’s all edited together seamlessly, giving the appearance of a live gig, but with the crowd reaction clearly labelled ‘Beacon Theatre 2011’, ‘Vienna Opera House 2015’, etc.

Every track is slightly longer than on the studio album, and despite the occasional change in running order, every track on the standard CD release is played, with the exception of the album closer, Savannah. This light country-folk piece makes an uplifting end to the studio version, but probably would not be a great way to end a live gig, calling as it does for Joe to put down his axe and plink on a mandolin. Instead, we are treated to some bonus performances of numbers from Joe’s debut album. These include his cover of Rory Gallagher’s Cradle Rock, Free’s Walk In my Shadow and Jethro Tull’s A New Day Yesterday, also interpolating a rendition of Würm by Yes. Thus the studio album’s 55 minute running time is extended to 79 minutes for the new live CD and 1 hour 35 minutes for the DVD, including the introductory chat and extended credits.

Bonamassa flanked by Greg Morrow on drums and Michael Rhodes on bass – photo by Kit Wood

There is a nice, humorous twist at the end of the DVD, as the final crash ending dies away and the subtitles announce that the applause is taken from The Ryman Auditorium, 2020 – which of course was attended by a cardboard audience – so there is nothing, no sound at all. Joe goes for a bit of audience interaction, without getting much response… Nevertheless, despite being a difficult crowd, the cardboard audience members are given special thanks at the end, and all listed (with their photos) individually during the credits, which makes for a long playout, during which we hear You Do Me No Favours (Royal Tea extended version bonus track), and a belated outing for Savannah. Listeners to the CD version miss all that of course, and hear some applause fading out at the end instead.

There are a couple of band changes from the personnel  on the studio album, the most notable of which is that Joe’s regular drummer Anton Fig is replaced by Greg Morrow, who plays additional percussion on the original. Regular backing vocalist Jade MacRae is joined on this occasion by Dannielle De Andrea rather than Juanita Tippins, but they manage to co-ordinate perfectly, not just vocally but in their movements too, as cool and classy as you like. The blues harp is provided by Jimmy Hall instead of Errol Linton, and regulars Reese Wynans on keys and bassman Michael Rhodes are also joined on this occasion by Rob McNelly on second guitar.

The Covid situation has initiated some creative thinking all round. Live album purists are not going to like the idea of adding ‘fake’ applause for the sake of atmosphere. But on the other hand, it’s just better that way – having watched this band and others do live streaming gigs, it’s great, and it’s a way of keeping in touch with a remote audience, but it lacks the adrenalin push that is provided by crowd reaction. It’s the new reality, at least for now, so we all make the best of it that we can. Joe clearly does, and it works.

Joe Bonamassa’s “Now Serving: Royal Tea Live From The Ryman” is released on DCD, Vinyl, DVD and Blu-ray by Provogue/Mascot Label Group on June 11th.  Pre-order: www.mascotlabelgroup.com/collections/new-products