May 4, 2023

California rockers Robert Jon & The Wreck have been busy bees lately. Although it was September 2021 when their last full studio album Shine A Light On Me Brother dropped, they started a UK tour the same month, returning to the UK for another tour the following spring. This was accompanied by a brace of non-album singles in Waiting For Your Man, followed by She’s A Fighter, their first release on Joe Bonamassa’a KTBA label. A couple more singles and another tour later in the year accompanied the release of their second compilation album Wreckage Vol. 2 in September 2022, with a four-track EP named One Of A Kind following in early spring 2023. The fragmented approach to new studio releases may have raised eyebrows, but we didn’t realise that RJ Burrison and the boys had another huge fish in their frying pan – this sprawling live album and DVD set recorded in June 2022 in Belgium, released on April 21st 2023 as Live At The Ancienne Belgique. It was captured towards the end of a massive 67-date, nine-country tour, by which time hopefully they would be firing on all cylinders and revving hard, which indeed turned out to be the case. Released on Bonamassa’s new Journeyman combined marketing, promo and record label, and benefitting from the inevitable spit and polish the organisation can bring to bear, I can confirm that it’s a barnstorming statement of intent by a truly excellent band, with an authentic take on Southern rock à Lynryd Skynyrd or Steve Earle.

Robert Jon Burrison (foreground), with Henry James Schneekluth (photo: Trees Rommelaere)

The DVD version runs to an hour and 47 minutes, with a short intro and minimal waffle; the CD sacrifices five tracks to cram the evening’s performance on to one disk, while still providing a generous hour and a quarter. Production is excellent throughout and the mix is pin-sharp perfect, with no blips or sudden steps where the edits occur. They elect to bully off with The Devil Is Your Only Friend from the 2015 Glory Bound album, which clambers aboard the southern boogie bus right from the start. The next two songs on the DVD version, Rollin’ from 2016’s Good Life Pie and the aforementioned She’s A Fighter, are both well worthy of inclusion in the set, but are jettisoned on the CD version, which instead fires straight into the anthemic Do You Remember, a paean to the glory days of our youth, with unashamedly Allman Brothers dual guitar harmonies. And right there, the band’s only problem is highlighted clearly – every song is a winner, which means we have to lose two excellent songs from a flawless set.

Missing those two tracks means we also miss Robert Jon Burrison’s introduction of the two backing singers, Natasja den Toom and Michelle Oudeman, who contribute an extra texture to proceedings, as if such were required. The band’s promo material makes much of their guitarist Henry James Schneekluth, even referring to him as a prodigy – I thought that might be taking things a little far at first, but in fact he keeps every number charging along like a mad bull, equally at home on slide or straight guitar, but mostly playing both at the same time, with a steel bottleneck fastened on his pinky finger. He gets to showcase his skills in a solo spot for a minute or so before the band joins in on Hey Hey Mama, with it’s cool overdriven guitar riff and Daddy’s-Gonna-Buy-You-A-Mockingbird melody line. Schneekluth outdoes himself on this one, with a steaming, shredding wah solo, building to a soaring monster of a performance as the band breaks out into a juggernaut, pounding rhythm that rocks like the blazes – and I mean, really rocks, Live And Dangerous style. This one is the highlight of an already excellent set for this reviewer.

They revert to a country vibe for a few tracks, including the hooky Oh Miss Carolina, and Robert Jon gives a shout out to several associates during the show; Tour Manager Manny Montana and engineer Jeff Frickman et al. Keyboard wizard Steve Maggiora contributes great, boogie piano throughout, but gets his own minute and a half in the sun a little later on, choosing to play a gentle, melodically-jazzy solo spot, certainly the most relaxing part of the set.

One of the features that impressed me when I saw the band in the flesh is their almost telepathic ability to rise and fall in total sympathy – it’s not just a case of verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus; every part of the song builds and drops in a harmonic roller-coaster. This is illustrated on the morose country ballad The Death Of Me, which goes so quiet during the guitar solo, a pin dropping would sound like crashing china – I genuinely thought the sound man was fading them out at one point. But then it builds again to another rock-out, one of the longest numbers of the night, and another great guitar solo. RJ gives a shout-out to ‘Henry James’, electing to avoid his surname entirely.

Left to right: Robert Jon Burrison, Henry James Schneekluth, Warren Murrel at The Ancienne Belgique (photo: Trees Rommelaere)

The video footage now includes a short but impressive drum solo from Andrew Espantman, (who also edits the video footage by the way), flowing into non-album single Waiting For Your Man – this whole section is missing from the CD, which is a pity, as it’s another full-on rocker, and adds another extra dimension on the DVD version. Clever audio editing brings us straight into Don’t Let Me Go from Last Light On The Highway, a neat trick, as this number carries on directly from the one before on the DVD! Schneekluth gives a master class in slide guitar on the angry country ballad Old Friend, which is followed by the tremendous Shine A Light On Me Brother, with it’s rhythm changes, boogie piano backing and audience clap-along vibe – another highlight for sure.

By this point, I have realised what is unsettling about tall bass man Warren Murrel – his gently chugging rhythms have been driving the sound along the whole way through, and he looks like he’s having a ball – but with his dark shades, slightly dishevelled hair and constant grin, he’s a dead ringer for jack Nicholson in The Shining. And heeeeere’s Warren, on the last number of the main set, with a coolly groovy bassline over rolling snare work from Espantman. The number ricochets between Allman Brothers harmony lead guitars, deep drops, soaring guitar solos, boogie piano, and even a piano/guitar harmony duet at one point. One more big Allman Bros harmony section sees Burrison, Schneekluth and Murrel, heads down at the front of the stage, doing the Status Quo headbang before a big crash ending.

It’s a great conclusion to the CD, but DVD viewers still have the encore to come: Maggiora opens with a jazzy ballad intro on the electric piano for the title track to 2015’s Glory Bound, another anthemic sing-along which builds with the help of a crashing piano backing, to a slide solo and a wall of sound. The whole concert concludes with a Blues Brothers-style fast soul rocker, On The Run, which builds at the end to manic speed before a massive, multi-faceted crash ending. The full video experience is an excellent document of the band in action, but the CD, although shorter, is still the length of a vinyl double album, so doesn’t sell the listener short by any means. As previously mentioned, every song is a winner, there is no filler at all, so whether CD or DVD, it’s a powerful rush throughout, and I would have no objection if someone told me this would go down as one of the all-time classic live rock albums.

Robert Jon & The Wreck – Live From The Ancienne Belgique is now available on CD/DVD, double vinyl, and digital download via Joe Bonamassa’s Journeyman Records