Robert Jon & The Wreck + Laura Evans @ KK’s Steel Mill, Wolverhampton – Thursday 12th May

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Review by Paul H Birch and photos by Manny Manson (RJ & The W) & Ellie Rogers (LE).

Sitting on stage, cradling an acoustic from which enigmatic melodies are being produced is one Joe Coombs. He’s doing so under dim lights, and as the luminescence increases a young lady walks on from stage left. With long blond hair, a black halter top, and loon jeans frayed at the boot area, it’s safe to say she’s easy on the eye as indifferent punters turn and draw nearer to the stage.

Her name’s Laura Evans. She’s got previous form in musical theatre and on TV appearing on the Basil Brush Show. But the past is a different country. She’s now forging a career as a singer that’s bedded in rootsy blues and some country with some modern R ‘n B hooks.

Photo: Ellie Rogers

Fittingly, her opening number goes by the handle ‘Solo’, albeit sung as if she’s saying “so low” and being about a lover who’s rarely around. Early on there’s something of that Stevie Nicks’ nasal quality to her voice but it’s punctuated with breathy sighs and poppier melodies not unlike Susanna Hoffs, and maybe her natural Welsh accent is in there too; whatever, her diction ensures her lyrics are clear. There’s definitely a country pop swing to this first number, whereas ‘Fire With Fire’ is more upbeat and rootsy, her voice pitching a little higher.

Photo: Ellie Rogers

Her reading of a cover of Chris Stapleton’s ‘Arkansas’ is arguably more scene-setting than the original, while beginning slower as a gospel blues until Coombs builds it into a country rocker. From what she says, she and Coombs only met mere days ago, but they gel well together musically. Romantic coupling has proved less successful she claims, and a lot of the songs she’s written revolve around that very subject. ‘Fool’ being one, and her vocal range is given scope across this ballad.

Edging towards a more epic-reaching pop-Americana is ‘Gone’, followed by ‘State Of Mind’ that grooves in a country boogie meets AOR manner, before finishing with the single ‘I’m Alright’ that proves more effective live.

A good-looking good singer with decent songs, she may well be one to watch if the right management team invest in her, as it is Laura Evans proves well matched as support to Robert Jon & The Wreck.

Photo: Manny Manson

As the headline act walk onstage, members call out “Bob!” but it’s not the frontman they’re animated about, but Bob Fridzema, who’s sitting in with the band to play keyboards while regular member, Steve Maggiora, will fly in from the States tomorrow, where he’s been playing with Toto. Former ivory-tickler with the award-winning King King and Joanne Shaw Taylor, among others, Fridzema’s got a small singular keyboard rather than the banks of such we’ve seen him playing previously, and he still sounds pretty damn cool on it. Does Robert Jon Burrison seem perturbed by this audience affection? No, in fact, later in the evening he’ll praise Fridzema as one of the best keyboard players alive. But then, while Robert Jon is ostensibly the main man here, aside from taking lead vocals and playing guitar, through the night we’ll often see him step aside and move to the backgrounds as others take solos and the like – A tall guy, with long beard and Stetson hat you still keep one eye on him.

They open with ‘She’s A Fighter’ heralded by Henry James’ guitar hammer-ons and a power chord from Robert Jon as he weighs into the mic, singing with gruff conviction. Both group and PA sound sounding good from the start. While the applause is strong; they don’t hang around, drummer Andrew Espantman setting the pace for ‘Do You Remember’.

Photo: Manny Manson

Can you recall that first year of covid lockdown when the sun seemed to shine bright every day? I spent many an hour attacking the back garden while listening to Robert Jon & The Wreck’s Last Light On The Highway album, ‘Do You Remember’ being one the highlights for me. Tonight, I find the audience are suitably appreciative, as are Laura Evans and Joe Coombs now standing a few feet in front of me, where they’ll continue to be for most of the set. The song is paced wonderfully, James’s squealing guitar solos sat nearly within the framework as the band proceed to work the stage, bass player Warren Murrell smiling coolly out from behind a pair of shades.

New to me, but an old number ‘Hey, Hey Mama’ has a loose funk-boogie feel and people are dancing. Live there’s much more upfront guitar soloing than on record, and here begins an assortment of quandaries: The overall impression of Robert Jon & The Wreck is of a Southern rock band, where up to three lead guitarists isn’t unknown. However, they’re based in California and save for some harmony guitar pieces alongside Robert Jon, since 2019 or thereabouts James has been solely responsible for the lead work, and he’s pretty damn good and far from derivative. Sporting an afro and small moustache, I’m put in mind of a young Neal Schon alongside former REO Speedwagon’s Gary Richrath in tonal approach. Burrison, James and Murrel stand up front swaying and getting off on the music they’re playing together, before bringing the piece to an end.

Photo: Manny Manson

“Wow! Thank you for being here this evening – But I guess you guys live here!” Robert Jon laughs, “But it’s our first time in Wolverhampton”. Changing to acoustic guitar, he gives us the gentler evocative vocal refrains of ‘Oh Miss Carolina’ surging into the doo-wop rich melodies and harmonies of ‘Work It Out’.

With rhythm section in R ‘n B groove mode, Doobie Brothers style chords played chunkily, Robert Jon’s tonsils getting a fine workout on the Dave Mason-like ‘Everyday’. Again, live the song takes on another form, and while shorn of its female backing, there’s a strong party atmosphere, RJ’s hands clapping above his head as the crowd follow suit, then facing off Murrell in front of the drum riser as James solos in anthemic manner, by the time we get to ‘Waiting for Your Man’ they’re rocking hard and bopping from one side of the stage to another. ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ drives similarly hard but with big group vocal hooks and slide guitar wailing taking us into Allman Brothers’ territory.

There’s a couple of times during the night where the rhythm section set up a groove where we presume Fridzema exquisite playing will lead us into another number, only for them to be revealed as jams, as the guitarists change six strings, Espantman explaining such changeovers are the one downside to their newer numbers. Mind you, the audience didn’t complain.

Photo: Manny Manson

There’s a funky, almost ska like feel to what proves another vintage tune in ‘Old Friend’, amid cheeky fizzy guitar solos, some magic piano work, strong vocals and hooks aplenty, by the time it finishes on a big drum roll, we’re more than the best of friends.

“My voice is a little strained” claims Robert Jon, apologising for why he’s done little in the way of introductions (as far as he’s concerned), saving his voice for singing, but he wants us to know they’ve come all the way from California and are thrilled to be here. Look, I know every band says that, tonight for sure this is a band having fun playing together and really working well as they do so and that’s what counts for the punters here tonight.
As we get ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’, the title track of their most recent album, we move from soul to Southern rock with some a cappella harmonising thrown in for good measure.

What’s been really good about tonight is discovering the strength of the band’s back catalogue. Their most recent two albums have made waves over here in the UK, but they continue to dip further back, as they leave us with one final song in ‘Cold Night’ – It encompasses everything that’s good about the band, resounding harmonies that support a strong visual narrative in Robert Jon’s main lyrics, James letting rip over a series of melodic guitar solos picking up naturally from more Allman Brothers style duel guitar melodies, a chilled-out rhythm section that know when to rock, and some great fills on organ and piano. A great band, with some cool songs, many expanded to strong effect live on stage.

Set List:
1. She’s A Fighter
2. Do You Remember
3. Hey, Hey Mama
4. Oh Miss Carolina
5. Desert Sun
6. Everyday
7. Whiskey
8. Waiting for Your Man
9. Don’t Let Me Go
10. Old Friend
11. Shine A Light On Me Brother
12. Cold Night