Review by Paul H Birch and photos by Rich Ward.
There’s a sizable audience already gathered, a strong percentage female. With this tour also taking in Wolverhampton it doesn’t appear to have split attendance numbers. The Assembly Rooms is a good venue, mind; it’s apparently just the price of beer here that puts people off from the conversations flowing, though many are the recommendations for local alehouses. This debate proving engrossing many are surprised to see a couple now standing on stage.
The black-boot foot-stomping, tambourine wielding dark-haired lady is Meghan Parnell, the gent strapping on an acoustic is Dave Barnes. As they’ll soon reveal, they’re representatives of Toronto, Canada, and doing something of a reccy here in the UK, ahead of their seven-strong horn-sectioned band Bywater Call touring here in October. They will proceed to deliver some six songs of folk and blues, wherein Parnell’s powerful and raunchy far-reaching voice draws attention, and Barnes while adding infrequent backing vocals delivers some intricate solos on acoustic, notably one with a rag-time feel on their second number.
They’ve had two albums out, the latter released the tail-end of last year, and perform numbers from both, including a rather speedy rendition of ‘Rollin’ & Tumblin’ before finishing with what Parnell describes as “a little Stax song” in ‘Bring Me Down’ for which Barnes plays electric with the sultry R ‘n B number coming across as quite touching if not a little beautiful.
I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from the pair and were very pleasantly surprised, with warm applause throughout their set. Lazy comparisons to When Rivers Meet can be made, since they started as a duo, but one presumes the extended Bywater Call line-up to be rather different sound wise. But, hey, let’s see spring and summer in before we go for looking for winter’s return.
While we’re not expecting smoke bombs and lasers as the headline act strike their first chord, the use of entrance music usually implies some sense of drama to proceedings. Robert Jon & The Wreck walk on, one by one, a familiarity of faces receiving genial applause, but it feels a bit of a wait as they set-up shop tuning waiting for the music over the PA plays out. But, as wise folk have sagely told us, patience is a virtue, and tonight we’re rewarded.
Not only are those armed with guitars pivoted on the edge of the stage, but keyboards are also positioned towards the audience as they slide collectively into the steady shuffling rock of ‘Pain No More’, a hefty rhythmic section shrug, with Henry James Schneekluth peeling off guitar licks and performing slide as he roams from stage right to all points in between, while at the other end, shaking his long bushy hair is the band’s new keyboard player, whose name I fear I only hear as being Jake.
“How y’all doing?” asks Robert Jon Burrison, after letting out a series of roars that concluded the last number. One by one, band members start laying down a beat, ready for Burrison and Schneekluth to invoke harmony guitars sweetly introducing the feelgood-summery southern rock of ‘Do You Remember’ and those heads already bopping in the crowd will be shaking a good section of their other parts soon, as they prepare to dance the night away. Next up, they offer a new number with ‘Come At Me’, their latest single, that rocks up hard come the chorus with its retaliatory vocals.
Slowing down by way of a blues groove, a synthesiser melody ensues, the tempo picking up as guitars flare up for ‘She’s A Fighter’.
Musically, you can’t truly pigeon-hole these Californians, at one end of the spectrum they sound like The Allman Brothers, the other The Eagles, but there’s some Motown wrapped up in the grooves too. With an abundance of checked shirts and long hair on stage it may look like a 70s revival, but bass player Warren Murrell’s ever-present shades remind you those of the Sunshine state invented the meaning of cool.
It’s a small stage but they find room to manoeuvre, and while certain routines have obviously set-in with pre-established poses at certain song sections, it’s not overly rehearsed. “Cheers to ya, all!” calls out Robert Jon as he raises a glass of what looks to be whisky, and a series of audience and stage banter ensues before a crash of cymbals from drummer Andrew Espantman directs our attention, and let us make no mistake it’s his hearty polyrhythmic changes that steer the band musically. He and Murrell strike up a beat that becomes a psychedelic desert blues with Cross, Still & Nash-like harmonies sprinkled throughout as purple spotlights dazzle the audience, Robert Jon pouring on the emotional heartaches with lines likes: “All that I need is to feel your love again.”
With little time to wipe away any tears, Espantman’s let loose with a large and boisterous solo, into which fuzzed-up chords act begin to act as counterpoint, then the next minute we’re all singing along to ‘Waiting For Your Man’, as Murrell’s high pinging bass notes begin to pedal down the lower end. This here’s a band that know how to vary their set, and with this one it’s plays out like a Loony Tunes cartoon set to rock music – Frantically manic but fun.
“This is a song about being on the road,” we’re told as a funk groove leads us into ‘High Time’. Schneekluth and Murrell face-off each other playing intricate riff, that consciously docks its cap to the recently deceased Jeff Beck, then they’re up stage front alongside Robert Jon giving it some, rapping away either side of an organ solo and some wah-wah guitar, the tune changing tack near the end and rocking out with the riff returning with heavier purpose.
More joking banter ensues between band and crowd, and despite its rather despondent title ‘When I Die’ bonds those gathered closer. Electric piano takes in slow blues then jazzier elements, cymbals crashing prior to Robert Jon’s voice resonating loud and clear over this bare soulful ballad. Further piano soloing and axe hero fretwork will ensue over the course of this song, but will do so as part of a longer musical conversation, with much applause received upon its conclusion.
With RJ changing guitar as piano again takes up the opening melody, we get a rather upbeat country rocking ‘Who Can You Love’, followed by another change of guitar and a sermon for the broken-hearted in ‘Gold’, with its forlorn lyrics about what might have been, its slight turn towards almost funeral march over a wailing guitar solo a well-crafted touch. With audience’s hands raised wavering over their heads, the band swings into ‘Oh Miss Carolina’ and said audience sing heartily along come the chorus – this despite them being awfully quiet between numbers, so presumably a polite bunch out in this neck of the woods.
Rocking and rolling with much choice lead guitar work becoming ever more present within the numbers in this latter part of the show, Schneekluth resembles a young Neal Schon doing an impersonation of Zappa but more potently applies a dextrous ability for precise nimble-fingered, fluidly inventive playing. His style hints at psychedelic influences purloined over a southern rock sound, and rarely repeats a lick that wasn’t intended to reinforce a previous statement. Robert Jon & The Wreck keep a loose noose, allowing the guitarist’s soloing largely to extenuate the heart of the song at hand, thus another of the band as a whole’s strength.
Those raised audience hands soon begin clapping along as ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’ takes on a roguish Stones strut, band members throwing shapes across the stage, Robert Jon rapping and carousing over sweeter vocal backing harmonies, before Espantman, showing no signs of being tired, trips bountifully around his kit one last time and amid a whirl of white light the song comes to a climatic end.
“We’ve got one more song,” exclaims the front frontman and band leader as we receive a lengthily jammed intro of harmony guitars before the four-strong frontline of guitarists and keyboard player issue a steady beat of grooving rock. Schneekluth’s clear-cut soloing taking on a dark thrashing texture before licks whizz past like lightning between long sustained notes, implying the song’s main melody as the band reinforce their support and his playing becomes ever more frenetic. Once more, stage front, like four horsemen of the apocalypse a rhythm is hammered down bleeding into a harmony guitar melody, then everyone else dropping out as the guitars play the main intro for true.
The song itself, ‘Cold Night’, is, in the main, simply Robert Jon’s voice alongside Jake’s piano, prior to the band joining on the chorus. There’s yet another Schneekluth guitar solo, followed by one on piano, with funky bluesified counter-melodies stretching out further into both Little Feet and Steely Dan territory. The guitarist moves across stage next to the keyboard player as they trade licks, challenging each other, but the battle well-matched. Espantman calls everybody in, there’s another raging guitar solo, with everyone upfront, piano rocking and rolling for all its worth while guitars wail. “Is this their ‘Freebird’?” a voice to my right asks, no, I think; that even grander epic’s probably the encore. With a heavy crash of sound that’s it, over, there are smiling faces on stage and much clapping from the crowds as they leave.
The sustained applause continues up the band returning to the stage, and there’s no waiting round now. With effects making his guitar sound more like a piano initially, Schneekluth plays chords, slowly beginning to pick out beguiling jazz licks, and Robert Jon begins to sing, and we know this is going to be one long swell encore as this is but Part 1 of ‘Last Light On The Highway’. Keyboards and bass slot in softly only to conclude this section with a clash of chords and cymbals, a heavy blues rock by way of Pink Floyd ensuing. There’s much thrusting of body shapes from RJ and Murrell for dramatic effect as the pair power-down chords amid keyboards soloing away. Taking several music detours along the way, they rock and roll down the highway, Schneekluth joining the other guitarists centre stage as they play the song’s key riff collectively, prior to the song’s even more haunting rock drama unfolding.
We’re in progressive rock territory now, no matter how you might try to claim otherwise. There are guitars soling in harmony and some gorgeous piano, ‘til a rumble of drums, precedes broken guitar chords as Murrell plucks out prickly notes from close to his bass’ bridge. They return to Part 1’s main melody, until Robert Jon utters his last enchanting lyrical refrain and it all ends in a crescendo. Then, raising that Stetson in a gentlemanly farewell: “Goodnight!”
A most entertaining night. Robert Jon & The Wreck specialise in songs that can tug at the heartstrings, even when they go all hell for leather rocking away. A solid flowing band sound with hooks and harmonies, melodies played with taste and ingenuity; live they’re growing into something quite special.
- Pain No More
- Do You Remember
- Come At Me
- She’s A Fighter
- Ride Into The Light
- Waiting For Your Man
- High Time
- When I Die
- Who Can You Love
- Oh Miss Carolina
- Shine A Light On Me Brother
- Cold Night
- Last Light On The Highway Part 1
- Last Light On The Highway Part 2