With a roar of the crowd and a few guitar licks aurally, this film takes us on an aerial view of what looks to be one very beautiful city, in Belgium’s capital city of Brussels. We pan round and down as Robert Jon Burrison’s announces: “If you haven’t noticed we’re going to be filming a video. So be on your best behaviour!” And with that, we are at the rear of the stage watching Andrew Espantman casually slap his drums, then hit the beat hard as off they go, in what looks to be a ram-packed venue.
Recorded on 29th June, the pandemic had put paid to European touring for long enough, Robert Jon & The Wreck, put in 67 performances in 75 days across nine countries. What you get in this DVD and CD is the band fine-tuned but loose enough to react of-the-cuff to the live environment. “A lot of time and effort went into our show at the Ancienne Belgique,” said frontman Robert Jon Burrison. “We had been meaning to make a live album for years, so we saw this as an opportunity to document and release unique, more evolved versions of our songs.”
A US east coast six-piece who’ve been taking the southern rock experience and mixing it up with sunshine state harmonies, among other sounds, the set features some deeper cuts. Whether the European audience is more familiar with those than UK ones I couldn’t say, maybe it’s also a final farewell for some as live renditions – Either way, the DVD listing each title with the year, and often the album it came out on, is useful for back catalogue collectors.
Five cameras were used to record the show, and they move in, back and round, so much at times you feel you’re either on stage or in the audience, but not at too fast a pace where you begin to feel nauseous or annoyed. They also settle long enough over the musicians playing to see what they’re doing, with all members given screen time, and many a guitarist and bass player may come away from watching this having learnt a few chops.
They open with the slide-fest ‘The Devil Is Your Only Friend’, with electric piano presiding more as Burrison (Or RJ, as we’re likely to refer to him more later) narrates at tale of busking through life and the pitfalls that can ensue, moving funkily here and there along the way. Next, Warren Murrel’s steady bass leads into ‘Rollin’’ and here we begin to acknowledge backing vocalists Natasja Den Toom and Michelle Oudeman, and they add to the overall performance, though the cameras don’t always wriggle in between the band to capture them on screen. A grooving R ‘n B shuffle there are plenty of close-ups on Murrel and Schneekluth (who we’re also likely to refer to as HJ hereafter), the latter we note is another in that growing breed of guitarists who don’t use a plectrum.
Strutting their shoulders, they surge forward under a flood of blue lights towards mics for up-tempo rock ‘n roller ‘She’s A Fighter’, featuring a particularly ornery guitar solo, alongside fine vocal harmonies. ‘Do You Remember’ starts with an electric piano roll from Steve Maggiora rippling harmony guitars then leading into the lovely sun-kissed trip down memory lane delights this particular listener. It then goes a little gospel, and looser in a euphoric manner, HJ going into a solo guitar performance of distorted bluesy textures with audience participation, before the band return, climaxing on a swinging beat.
‘Hey Hey Mama’ is rocked up country boogie ala early ZZ Top , before its mid-section solo makes out like some frenzied Zappa workout before leaping back in, then speeding up into a more southern rock extravaganza. RJ offers stage banter between songs, thanking road and camera crew along the way, but it’s the music you wanna know about, and ‘Blame It On the Whisky’ hits a slower groove, getting harder as R J & HJ start playing guitar in harmony, HJ and Maggiora’s piano racing in tandem to the song’s conclusion. Interestingly, back porch country rock ballad ‘Oh Miss Caroline’ comes across a little deeper and darker in this performance. “Cheers to y’all!” RJ and Murrel raise glasses as they cruise into ‘Tired Of Drinking’ – Steady paced with a little melancholy here and there while a slide guitar fights against any embitterment from the narrative settling in.
Maggiora takes a more extensive solo, incorporating jazz, a little blues, some semi- classical and a little gospel – He’s subsequently gone onto become a live keyboard player with Toto. ‘The Death Of Me’ sees RJ on acoustic guitar, a slow passive ballad more about mood, mainly distinguished by a jazz chorded solo. That it’s only around now one notices a few audience members beginning to flash mobile phones, reassuring for those of us who abhor those inconsiderate enough to block the view of fellow gig-goers.
‘Waiting For Your Man’ races out enthusiastically, then following a wail of guitar and ominous drum fills (from a constantly smiling Espantman) we’re into ‘Don’t Let Me Go’, hook heavy and with the ladies on harmonies giving it some of that vintage Skynard swagger, RJ thumping his chest passionately as he sings, then one arm raised over his head as he hollers outs triumphantly. There’s a great slide melody picked out as RJ and Murrel with hands over their heads getting the audience to clap along with them. Then, they crunch on down, for the soulful ‘Old Friend’ where there’s passion, grit, tenderness all wrapped up together vocally from RJ while also turning into a crowd clapping sing-along – That the song is about a bit-on-the-side and all the wrong-sided misogyny that may bring, we forgive due to the melody, much as we do The Stones’ ‘Fool To cry. Certainly, it’s not bothering the audience either, with it becoming one huge collaborative a Capella.
The mood well and truly established, RJ declares everyone should dance and sing, calling out “Let’s fucking go…” and ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’ with its sharp chorded, piano romping, whooping backing, street-cornered strut rock is played out. There are dancing heads, rocking shoulders and 360-degree trips round stage and auditorium. Next up, a haunting piano plays over a ruminating rhythm section, akin to The Doors with ‘Riders on the storm’, but with a jazzier fusion not least as the guitar comes in for ‘Cold Night’ – A long epic groove, the band is tight, melody guitar chiming away, backing vocals warm despite RJ’s telling us of his wintry woes. Guitar harmonies takes us out into Allman Brothers territory , still sprinkling fusion beyond the blues; explorative, joyful in desperation, HJ take off in flight but the overall melody persists. They return to main song with still a long way to go, piano coming to the fore, then guitar and keyboards harmonise, playing off each other, before rocking and rolling with the three guitarists close up on screen as the number ends rather gloriously.
Main set over, the crowd soon calls them back to encore, a piano creating mood for ‘Glory Bound’ a slow slide blues atmospheric ballad, building to frenzied guitar solo climax. “Alright, Brussels, we got one more song for you! RJ roars, and with a joyful drum beat they give one last rocking down the highway style delivery – RJ partying across the stage, before heading to the lead mic, the ensemble rocking and a reeling, like cowboys heading off into the sunset but with this Motown backbeat in there for final number ‘On The Run’, credits playing out to acoustic number ‘Last Light On the Highway Part 1’,
Now, the CD may feature the odd different track and running order, but either way, Live At The Ancienne Belgique is a pretty good greatest-hits styled package.
Without doubt, Henry James Schneekluth is an exceptionable guitarist, but it’s the groups collective sound that allows him to fly within the framework of the songs performed, and the band look relaxed and perfectly in synch with each other. Robert Jon Burrison’s voice resonates with sincerity and warmth, it draws you and when not a first-person narrative, you get the impression he’s singing someone he knows well. Rather like how this show comes across, close up, intimate; a party filled with friends.
- Review by Paul H Birch.
- Live At The Ancienne Belgique is released on 8th September 2023 via Journeyman Records (available here).
- Official Website