From the album’s title to the choice of Abbey Road Studios as the recording locale, Joe Bonamassa makes every effort to channel the aura of the great British Blues explosion on his latest LP, Royal Tea. Not wanting to appear the slightest bit lukewarm about his approach, Bonamassa even enlists a little collaborative writing help from former Cream lyricist Pete Brown, Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden, and Jools Holland.
With the setting saturated in English decor, listeners might be expecting a set of late ‘60s “near-covers” that hue incredibly close to offerings of that era. Bonamassa and company avoid a heavy-handed tribute to the genre and instead opt for subtle injections and inflections of the style into ten original tracks that would sound as fresh in past generations as they do today. There are brief nods to famous licks of yesteryear, hints of Jeff Beck to be found on distorted solos, and echoes of Clapton’s airy tone on slower passages, but these arise organically and never feel forced or aped.
Royal Tea doesn’t fixate on tempos, tones, or accompaniment. Opening with orchestral strings, “When One Door Opens” weds the baroque intro with a heavy main riff and faint female backing vocals to create a very large soundscape. Anton Fig’s cracking drums herald the second half of the composition in which Bonamassa decorates with some fuzzed-wah guitar fills. Equally heavy is the following “Royal Tea.” Punctuated guitar licks and Reese Wynans’s Hammond Organ bursts propel the verses’ clever call-and-response interplay between Bonamassa and the backing vocalists.
The remainder of the album isn’t as overt in its display of certain aspects British influence, but the overall power and focused songwriting are constant. A slower number like the single “Why Does It Take So Long To Say Goodbye” holds taut through a unique structure and strong verse/chorus dynamic. Even in longer, more relaxed instrumental sections, Bonamassa’s playing remains sharp and doesn’t meander.
Perhaps the most interesting stretch of the LP is the final four-song run in which none of the songs sound remotely alike. “I Didn’t Think She Would Do It” might be the best of the group with its cool intro and sleek rotating-speaker affected vocals. The hard-charging, dual-riffed track boasts a couple of creative changes and some of Bonamassa’s best solo work. Slower and less electrified in tone and instrumentation, the ominous “Beyond The Silence” features the set’s best vocal performance and excellent work by Wynans. Different again is the concise acoustic finale, “Savannah,” stylistically poles apart from the album opener.
Most of the British overtones on Royal Tea aren’t scattered upon the surface but enmeshed subtly. In a way, this is to be expected, as British Blues, not American Blues, ensnared the young Bonamassa and have always influenced his style and guitar playing. When set against basic nostalgia, original songs and artistic nuance usually win the day as they do here. The willingness to reconceive this era rather than just revisit it makes Royal Tea a great album and an intriguing listen.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– When One Door Opens
– Royal Tea
– Why Does it Take So Long To Say Goodbye
– I Didn’t Think She Would Do It
The Big Hit
– Royal Tea