Review by Paul Monkhouse for MPM
Living up to the title ‘The King of Modern Blues’ is a dauntingly lofty prospect but one that Joe Bonamassa takes in his blissfully confident stride, a man out to set standards for himself rather than worrying what others think of him.
In truth, the New Hartford born polymath has always been laser focused on the music, his love for the Blues a lifelong passion but also never afraid to experiment and push himself into new areas including his acclaimed work in hard rock, jazz and acoustic / classic crossovers.
Highlighting his first devotion and streamed in front of a global audience of thousands, ‘Now Serving: Royal Tea Live From The Ryman’ shows Bonamassa and his band at their full-blown height and it’s a wonderful thing to behold.
Whilst he’s released a few live albums in his time, this may be Bonamassa’s best yet, the performances incendiary and the celebration of his stellar last album very much welcome. Rather than following the usual path of cherry-picking prime cuts from across his extensive catalogue, this time the guitarist has chosen to perform all but one track of off the recent ‘Royal Tea’ and bookended this with covers from his debut, ‘New Day Yesterday’.
It’s an intriguing proposition and one that works remarkably well as it provides the bridge between the two ends of his career to date and shows both the past and the future. The whole release acts as a love letter to his influences and displays a hugely impressive grasp of what truly makes a great song, JB not just content to ape those who’ve gone before but to respectfully build on their legacy.
This want to stretch out is an acknowledgement of his constant desire to keep moving forward, a sharp suited shark never resting but constantly on the go as he seeks his next goal as if his very life depended on it.
The show isn’t just Bonamassa’s though, the six-stringer knowing you’re always in need of the best in the business to play with you and the crack collection of backing musicians he’s selected are never less than top class in their own right. Each one seemingly brought their ‘A’ game to the show, the level of playing here breathtaking and it all adds up to something to be enjoyed time and time again.
Whilst there is doubtless a hugely accomplished set of individuals at play here, the music performed with huge precision, the live arena gives the opportunity for a crackle of real life and adds an extra dimension and warmth away from the potential sterility of the studio.
‘When One Door Opens’ kicks off the set in suitably epic, skyscraping style, constantly climbing and mixing its more laid-back passages with some truly huge ones. As always, Bonamassa’s guitar work and vocals are phenomenal but what really is thrown into a bright light is his tremendous skill as a writer and arranger of breathless blues rock.
It’s a genuine joy to hear the whole, all the parts fitting like a perfectly well-oiled machine, the structure of the song thrilling as it moves into the sort of legendary status of bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles such is its construction.
The strutting and deep groove of ‘Royal Tea’ is suitably majestic, the artist at his most fertile and the solo a display of quicksilver tones that range from the light to the downright dirty.
The strident swing of ‘High Class Girl’ and the monster punch of the fuzzed up ‘Lookout Man!’ blow away any resistance, both displaying the fact that JB can rock as hard as any of his contemporaries.
A glorious ‘Why Does It Take So Long To Say Goodbye’ follows, its almost ten minutes length filled with sublime guitar and keys work, the track worth the price of admission alone as it takes flight for an extended fretboard workout for its last section.
A bright and upbeat ‘A Conversation With Alice’ at times echoes late period Beatles mixed with some of Paul Carrack’s finest moments before ‘I Didn’t Think She Would Do It’ raises the tempo and the temperature up again.
Southern Gothic rocker ‘Beyond The Silence’ sounds like it would find a happy home in a Hollywood blockbuster, its many hues shot through with light and then it was time for Bonamassa and the band to really cut loose and have some fun.
It’s a race for the finish as they tear into the pure rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Lonely Boy’, a ferocious reading of Rory Gallagher’s ‘Cradle Rock’, the whisky-soaked blues boogie of Free’s ‘Walk In My Shadow’ and topping it all with a medley freaturing Jethro Tull’s ‘A New Day Yesterday’ which segues seamlessly into ‘Starship Trooper’ and ‘Wurm’, the Yes songs sounding just as fresh and vital as ever.
The audience may have been remote for this one but the performance is far from that, Bonamassa reaching out and playing as only he knows how: straight to our hearts and souls. A truly magical release, this is one of the best live albums you’ll hear for many a year and raises the bar yet again in a career that seems to know no limits. Joe Bonamassa IS music.
Joe latest live album is OUT NOW! Get it at https://joeb.me/NowServingAlbum