By Chris Wheatley
A notable release for many different reasons, Joe Bonamassa’s latest offering, Now Serving: Royal Tea Live From The Ryman, is set for release June 11th, on Double LP, CD, Blu-Ray and DVD via Provogue/Mascot Label Group. The Ryman Auditorium occupies a special place in music history. A former home of the Grand Ole Opry, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams once walked the stage, the historic, hundred-year-old building has stolen the metaphorical hearts of artists from Taylor Swift to Coldplay, thanks to its unique atmosphere and unrivalled acoustics. For Bonamassa’s concert, recorded during the pandemic, the Ryman was populated with life-size cardboard cut-outs of fans, and broadcast across the globe. This was a unifying event, purposefully designed to lighten lives during hard times, with proceeds going to Bonamassa’s Fueling Musicians charitable programme. On the DVD, the film introduction is narrated by actor, Jeff Daniels.
What we get here, apart from the expected polished and heartfelt performance, are twelve live tracks, including unreleased versions of songs from Bonamassa’s Royal Tea album. Having been fortunate enough to watch a full preview of the DVD, I can say that this is an inspired and inspiring set. It can’t have been easy playing to an empty room, but clearly the band gave it their all, reaching out to the hundreds of thousands of fans who they knew were watching around the world. Says Bonamassa, “We played as good as we could in front of those 1700 cardboard cut outs of your faces and tried to imagine you there.” With an artist as dedicated and earnest as Bonamassa, you know that he means it.
The aptly-titled “When One Door Opens” starts the show, a grand, unwinding and orchestral-minded piece which showcases the scope and ambition of Bonamassa’s song-writing and arranging skills. He has never been one to take the easy route, ever reaching for the skies. With this swooping, soaring track, shot full of aching pathos and eerie beauty, you can’t help but be impressed. As light-footed and hard-hitting as Muhammad Ali at his peak, “When One Door Opens” is in many ways the perfect representation of Bonamassa – earthy and rootsy on the one hand, reaching for stratospheric heights on the other. Vocally, Bonamassa is as strong as ever, muscular and affecting, with a smoothness of delivery which belies his hard-hitting power. Through it all runs that effortlessly weighty guitar sound which has made him famous. The secret behind the efficacy of both, lies in Bonamassa’s ability to be both fluid and weighty at once. His guitar is always mesmerizing, hefty and enjoyable, his vocals likewise.
The rest of the set easily lives up to its promise. The title-track itself thumps and struts, growls and menaces. Plenty of blues/rock muscle fires up a heady mix. You can hear the rich, layered magic of classic Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix here, married to the easy musical invention of The Beatles and the sheer power of Led Zeppelin. Bonamassa’s guitar sings and sweeps, as mercurial as ever.
Watch “High Class Girl”
“Why Does It Take So Long” starts off with delicate shimmering percussion before launching into an epic, questing blues, which veers from majestic might to fragile tenderness. “Beyond The Silence” whispers, stirs and echoes, unfurling into a dusty, highly affecting ballad. Old-West Americana tumbles and moans, drums skip and light up the venue.
Listening to these tracks, it’s not hard to understand why Bonamassa has amassed such a large and loyal fan base. Not only is he an incredible talent, he is an artist who wears his heart on his sleeve. When he performs, he is playing for those listening, not for himself. This ethos shines through every note here, making Now Serving: Royal Tea Live From The Ryman a record well deserving of your time.
Pre-order link for Now Serving: Royal Tea Live From The Ryman
UK/European pre-order link for Now Serving: Royal Tea Live From The Ryman