Spoiler alert – We are living through what we may one day refer to as Joe’s ‘classic period’.
Like many a musician, Joe Bonamassa has settled into a routine of releasing studio albums of original music once every couple of years for the last decade or so. Unlike most artists, he has been interspersing this with a steady stream of live recordings, bringing the average up to well over an album a year – and many of the live releases are double CDs too, often with a DVD thrown into the mix. In addition to this extremely high output of solo material, he has found time to collaborate on four full studio albums with rock supergroup Black Country Communion over the same period, and four albums with vocal powerhouse Beth Hart, a dream team if ever there was one. One reason he has managed to flood the market, and yet still retain enough mystique for his studio releases to provoke mouth-watering anticipation, is that the output is consistently so damn good.
Most blues artists stretch the genre these days, often drifting into soul and RnB directions that hug the radio. Bonamassa tends to reach into other areas, notably rock, folk and country, sometimes themed, such as his tributes to various artists who have influenced him. Still, one has to wonder how far the blues will stretch, and how many sets he can generate before he starts to repeat himself a little too much.
And yet, not only does Royal Tea push the boundaries just a little bit further, this is genuinely among the best material he has ever released. To be truthful, it is not a blues album at all; the riffage is rooted in the blues scale to be sure, but it’s a rock album through and through – although it opens with a rising tide of classical bombast featuring the Bovaland Orchestra, masterminded by producer Jeff Bova, who has collaborated with everyone from Yoko Ono to Jody Watley to Iron Maiden. After about a minute of turning the album cover over in your hands to make sure you’ve picked up the right disc, the overdriven guitar and the familiar female backing vocals drop in, but the orchestra continues on what is basically a minor-key West End overture played loud. At the four-minute mark the snare drum starts to beat a military march, then just as we think it’s going to be Ravel’s Bolero, it changes again to a full-on heavy metal section à la Bruce Dickinson, with a tortured and roaring wah-wah guitar solo. More military drumming leads to a power chord false ending, then the last minute plays out soft and sweet, hanging on a discordant last note. This seriously brilliant opening gambit is a direct thumbing of the nose to anyone who thought this was going to be a basic blues offering.
The title track follows on, with a thumping slow blues rock intro that eases into a rolling tide. Joe claims Royal Tea was inspired by the announcement of Harry and Meghan’s withdrawal from royal life, although there is no storyline as such, just some proper Albert King-styled blues guitar interspersed with massively overdriven sections, with the ladies holding down the hook line with their backing vocals.
You can watch the video for Why Does It Take So Long To Say Goodbye at the bottom of this page, a nearly seven-minute rock ballad co-written with Bernie Marsden, with recognisable elements of classic era Whitesnake. This is followed by the raspy, punky, deep bass intro riff to Lookout Man! Complete with exclamation mark. Some sweet harmonica from Errol Linton lends this number a bluesy vibe, but it’s strident, angry New Wave, drifting away into a kind of dream sequence at the end, with dry guitar and acoustic blues harp.
High Class Girl is another co-write with Bernie Marsden, presenting 1970s pub blues over a thumping Green Onions backing. As raw as Dr. Feelgood or Booker T, with 1950s echo on the lead vocals, it takes a lot of class to play it as lowdown and dirty as this – about the coolest head-nodding foot-tapper I’ve heard for ages.
Until this point, the whole set has been like standing in a wind-tunnel, staring wide-eyed into a storm. This has been the most powerful juggernaut of power rock in the entire Bonamassa catalogue, but I would say that from this point on it settles back into Joe’s usual high-class vibe. A Conversation With Alice is pure Foghat, southern boogie with an English twist, and heavily phased chords underpinning a melodic, rolling, country rocker. The screaming demon returns to some extent with I Didn’t Think She Would Do it, which features a murderously incisive intro with chainsaw guitar, morphing into a 1970s fusion rocker with insistently unstoppable bass and drum rhythm – Hendrix mixed with pub rock’n’roll. A joyously mental guitar solo fronts an in-your-face power rocker, about as live as studio work could possibly be.
Ominous thunderclaps in the distance introduce Beyond The Silence, accompanied by heavily reverbed rim-shot drums and clear-toned electric and acoustic guitars. We are back to the Dust Bowl for this one, or maybe Mountain Climbing from 2016’s Redemption set. Wynans plays a dry piano over a return to the last couple of albums with a country rock vibe.
Lonely Boy ushers in a complete change of scene though; an up-tempo, speakeasy, barrelhouse rock’n’roll number featuring Jools Holland on the piano. The horn section comes into its own with those percussive backing stabs, and Holland knocks out a groovy boogie solo, followed by Bonamassa playing a Dave Edmunds clear-toned rockabilly turn. Anton Fig’s drumming is inspired on this one, varying that driving rhythm in subtle ways to keep it progressing – then to round off the 50-minute set, Savannah takes us back to the southern states for this Little Feat or Lynyrd Skynyrd bayou ballad. Bonamassa even lends it a little more credibility by stumping up a turn on the mandolin, with some tasteful slide in the background.
Bonamassa is still young enough to have decades of music in him, but honestly, it’s difficult to imagine it getting much better than this. Maybe he’ll keep up this standard till he turns up his toes, but more likely, we are living through what we may one day refer to as his ‘classic period’. Enjoy it people.
Joe Bonamassa’s new album “Royal Tea” is released by Provogue/Mascot Label Group on Friday October 23rd.
Pre-order the album from www.mascotlabelgroup.com/Joe-Bonamassa-announces-new-studio-album-Royal-Tea-Pre-order-now and https://shop.jbonamassa.com/collections/royal-tea