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Joe Bonamassa - Royal Tea (Album Review)

Friday, 23 October 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Marty Moffat

Over the course of his seemingly unstoppable career, Joe Bonamassa has acquired many labels: Smokin’ Joe, guitar prodigy, blues champion. After hearing his latest opus ‘Royal Tea’, recorded at Abbey Road studios with the intention of honouring Britain’s formative blues-rock superstars, we’ll go one further and say that Bonamassa is now the Batman of the blues. Or Bruce Wayne of the blues. Bear with us on this one.​

Following the murder of his parents young Bruce wanted to fight crime, but if he’d done so at that age chances are that an early grave would have beckoned. He was neither ready nor equipped for the challenge. Only after he’d travelled the world, learnt from the masters and truly honed his skills could he reappear to save Gotham as the Batman.

Likewise, with Bonamassa’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the 1960s British blues scene, and love for key players such as Eric Clapton, John Mayall and Jeff Beck, the 43-year-old could have made ‘Royal Tea’ earlier.

Yet it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as accomplished because he needed time to develop, expand and refine his skillset. Older, wiser, and with experience to burn, he’s returned to pay tribute to his first musical love armed with the chops required to make an invigorating blues-rock behemoth rich in dynamic twists, turns and stylistic surprises.

Stunningly dramatic and quietly poetic, When One Door Opens is one of the most impressively sculpted tunes Bonamassa has written. Beginning with whispered, soul-searching passages, it broods with a meditative pacing until Anton Fig’s thunderous drums power into a nasty Beck’s bolero on steroids riff and all hell breaks loose.  

The booming title track’s Led Zeppelin stomp, meanwhile, pivots around a magnetic, cooed chorus, I Didn’t Think She Would Do It’s mythical UFO gallop morphs into a crash-bang blues thumper and Lookout Man, with its sludgy Black Sabbath bass line, spits out a mid-temp, peacock proud strut full of ego, wit, danger and lashings of malevolent harmonica.

But the Dark Knight wouldn’t have been as effective without Lucius Fox, Alfred and Commissioner Gordon in his corner. From producer Kevin Shirley to the impressive band he’s assembled over the years, Bonamassa also knows the value of a good collaborator. Aside from his consistently magnificent backing singers, every musician on ‘Royal Tea’, as well as co-writers like Bernie Marsden, Dave Stewart, Jools Holland and former Cream lyricist Pete Brown, adds extra character and flair to texturally decadent, full-blooded songs that touch on everything from therapeutic intervention and maddening relationships to Harry and Meghan’s infamous royal split.

Perhaps it’s testament to his all round development, and evolution into a vocalist capable of delivering the heart, soul and spunk these tunes demanded, but Bonamassa’s fretwork isn’t close to being this album’s standout star. This is ironic because, from the rugged tremolo picking and double stop aggressiveness on Lookout Man to Royal Tea’s immensely phrased slide passages, his solos are stunningly versatile and welded to each song’s emotional bent, typifying what a sage and judicious player he’s become.  

‘Royal Tea’ may abandon its British blues theme towards the end, with Beyond The Silence a typically dusky Bonamassa epic and Savannah pastoral Americana, but both are very strong cuts on a lovingly crafted album that, although not quite the sprawling, fully-realised artistic statement of 2018’s ‘Redemption’, treats mediocrity, not to mention creative stagnation, with the same level of contempt the Caped Crusader usually reserves for a dangerous criminal in clown makeup.

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