Review: A Live Album Without The Distraction Of An Audience? Blues Rocker Joe Bonamassa Has It Covered

Joe Bonamassa
Now Serving: Royal Tea Live from the Ryman
(J&R Adventures)
3 out of 5 stars

You didn’t think a little glitch like a pandemic that kept musicians off the road for most of 2020 would stop the abundant output of veteran blues rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa, right? 

Nah, he’s made of tougher, more industrious stuff. Instead of touring behind the Royal Tea (2020) studio set, Bonamassa assembled a stripped down band (no horns) at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium for one night. He employed multiple high definition cameras with professional audio and streamed the show to 100,000 fans worldwide, none of whom were there to experience it live (they were replaced by cardboard cutouts in the seats). Crowd applause with hoots and hollering was added, accessed from other Bonamassa live gigs. Never one to miss an opportunity to generate more product, the result is now released on every format (CD/DVD/Blu-Ray/Double vinyl) except cassette tape. 

Bonamassa and band crank out nine of the ten Royal Tea selections (the final country ballad “Savannah” is the lone hold out), add three more from his A New Day Yesterday album (recently reissued to commemorate its 20th anniversary), and deliver 80 minutes of what every Joe B. fan craves: lots of high voltage gee-tar solos. The longer performances, and especially the soulful backing vocalists, are all slightly hotter than the studio versions. The disc’s most well-known track, the sturdy ballad “Why Does It Take so Long to Say Goodbye,” gets an extra three minutes to supply its bluesy goods. The closing version of Jethro Tull’s “A New Day Yesterday” almost doubles in length by adding a bit of Yes’ “Starship Trooper” with Steve Howe’s “Wurm” solo. 

Bonamassa has often been accused of ripping through shows as if there wasn’t an audience so this just seems like another night for him. He plays and sings with his usual somewhat aloof professionalism and the 20 closing minutes of covers from Tull, Rory Gallagher (“Cradle Rock”), Free (“Walk in My Shadow”) and Yes are cool enough. But a run through of his entire recent album is just unnecessary and one listen to Gallagher tearing apart his own “Cradle Rock” is enough to understand where Bonamassa comes up short in the frazzled, sweaty rocking department by comparison.

Still, it’s the closest we’ll get to hearing these tunes removed from their studio sheen until things get back to normal. Bonamassa and band are never less than classy and talented players even without the distraction of an audience. So for those who can’t make do with the already released mountain of existing Bonamassa live DVDs/CDs etc., this does the job adequately. Extra credit though for the event and its subsequent merch totaling 32,000 (and counting) for Bonamassa’s Fueling Musicians program that has been raising money for out of work players throughout the pandemic. 

Photo by Robert Sutton

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