Royal Tea is Joe Bonamassa’s 45th release since he began his solo career 20 years ago, and you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to know that – even including live albums and various side projects into the mix – that’s a serious clip for any artist. It’s also one that must make serious demands of your wellspring of creativity. Comparisons are often drawn between JoBo and the late great titan of blues-rock guitar Gary Moore, but even with an extra decade of his career, the Northern Irishman couldn’t even master three-quarters of Joe’s output to date – how do you keep coming up with good ideas when you’re making records at such a pace?
That brings us to the central concept of Royal Tea, which demonstrates the unconventional way that Joe’s mind works, and perhaps explains why he manages to be so prolific while still keeping his army of fans enrapt album after album. Joe has become a master of changing things up to keep it fresh – whether that’s the situation, the concept, the personnel, or in the case of this album, all three.
Royal Tea’s central tenet is this – can you make an album sound like it was authentically borne of a specific place by immersing yourself in that environment through every stage of writing and recording? To test this theory, he decamped to London for five weeks at the start of 2020 and set up in the iconic Abbey Road Studios to write and record the record.
Not content with merely being in England however, Joe also called up old mate and Whitesnake legend Bernie Marsden to add a dash of platinum-selling songwriting panache to proceedings, plus the talents of Cream lyricist Pete Brown on the words side, as well as Eurythmics legend Dave Stewart and arch piano-mitherer Jools Holland. With regular JoBo backing band drummer Anton Fig, bassist Michael Rhodes and organ man Reese Wynans also in the mix, plus the ever-present Kevin Shirley behind the desk, it’s a potent assemblage of talent.
Which is why you’re perhaps entitled to feel a bit concerned that Joe has assembled this all-star cast only to take things down the most clumsy road possible when the album opens with the parping regal horns of When One Door Opens, but mercifully this is a momentary diversion before Joe bursts in with a muscular, dramatic arpeggiated riff and we’re off to the races.
There’s something vaguely Bond-y about the drag, with its gently picked verse and descending pre-chorus motif, and gets straight to the bluesy heart of the matter with a classically hard-luck lyric couplet, “Every time one door opens, it closes on me”. This being a pounding blues-rock record the restrained mood soon gives way to a thundering beat from Fig and a searing wah-soaked outro solo that nods to Beck’s Bolero in exhilarating fashion, even if it does feel slightly incongruous in the context of the wider song.
The bluesy stomp of the title track is more coherent, complete with catchy cooed refrain from backing vocalists Jade MacRae and Juanita Tippins, it’s an exercise in ‘just enough’ guitar from Joe – condensing and editing himself to brief solo interludes that lay on the dramatic searing bends without ever overplaying.
Marsden co-writing credit is on five of these 10 songs and his first entry, Why Does It Take So Long To Say Goodbye instantly demonstrates what the man who wrote Here I Go Again brings to the table, his knack for power balladry apparent not just in the lyrics, but the smartly constructed slowly building bridge section, with chiming chorus-inflected doublestops duelling with the muscular blues-rock riffage of Joe’s Gibson Les Paul. Tonally it’s more chewy and dark than we’re used to hearing Joe sound with his weapon of choice strapped on, but it works here, as does his relative restraint in terms of the outro solo.
That desire to not play too much is a recurring theme, “The good thing about having had 44 albums out in 20 years is that if you’re buying a Joe Bonamassa record now, I kinda have to assume that you know I know how to play the guitar before you purchase!” Joe told Guitar.com in a forthcoming interview. “I’m trying not to sound flippant, but it allows you to truncate the solos to where you don’t have to prove your worth every fucking song!”
It’s definitely something you notice over the course of the album, and really demonstrates Bonamassa’s growth as an artist. ‘Restraint’ was not always a word you associated with Joe’s guitar playing on his early records, and as fun as it was, it’s clear that by keeping his powder dry here, the results are even more enjoyable when he does let loose. A word as well for JoBo’s continued improvement as a vocalist, as he’s able to add real heart and emotion to proceedings here.
Single A Conversation With Alice is where Marsden’s spectre looms largest – a driving, emotive 70s rock ballad, complete with instantly hummable pentatonic riff, is something of the 69-year-old’s stock in trade – but the way it segues into the galloping blues of I Didn’t Think She Would Do It is a reminder that this is as varied and diverse a record as Joe has put out under his own name.
It doesn’t always work – Lonely Boy’s honky-tonk stomp clearly shows everyone involved having a great time, but it really does test how much of Holland’s relentlessly jaunty piano you can stomach – but it shows the unconventional avenues Joe was willing to head down in search of this ‘British’ sound.
And so what about that grand theory that inspired this record? Well, it’s still very much a Joe Bonamassa record, but there is a certain inflexion to the New Yorker’s musical accent here that while subtle, certainly feels more authentic than you’d expect. Perhaps that’s down to the English talent brought in to shape the songs, perhaps it’s due to the Selmer and WEM amps and Zemaitis guitars that became part of his enviable guitar collection during the sessions, maybe it’s down to living and working at Abbey Road for a month. Either way, it’s mission accomplished.
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