With a fine album of new material nicely tucked away in the kit bag, Chris Rea was out on tour for the first time since 2014. Songs about the road feature heavily in the set, so it’s no surprise that Rea did much better at negotiating London logistics than us. We arrived late and someone was sat in our seats.
Rea was wringing out the last lingering sentiments of the haunting ‘Nothing Left behind’ as we settled into alternative seats, accordion underscoring a plaintive vocal and simple, crystal clear guitar.
All seemed well. Rea, dogged with chronic health problems for the last 15 years or so, suffered a stroke last year and had to relearn playing the guitar and singing. I had been understandably nervous about what to expect. The album is good, but you can do anything in a studio, right? As the sweet/sour vocals of ‘Josephine’ rose from the stage on a funky bassline with swelling keyboards and choppy guitar, there were no more worries.
A Chris Rea gig is always a curious mix of soft rock hits like ‘Josephine’ and ‘Julia’ coupled with gutsy blues rockers and gritty ballads. In the wider world, the perception of Rea is of grumpy bloke dealing in offbeat pop songs. When I tell people he is one of the best slide guitarists I’ve ever seen, very few believe me.
‘Easy Rider’ showcases his extra-ordinary talent perfectly. It is a beautiful track of depth, resonance and authenticity. The guitar parts are taut with a dry dustiness that could be Ry Cooder somewhere near Paris, Texas. You can taste the desert on your lips. The solo picks up pace with ringing slide salvoes, before Rea brings us back to the earth with the spare vocal.
Tracks from ‘Road Songs for Lovers’ are given a good airing, but already Rea is playing about with the arrangements. ‘Two Lost Souls’ becomes an intimate ballad with just vocal and piano, all the better for shedding some of the lush production on the album version.
Sometimes the arrangements didn’t add masses of value. ‘Julia’ was given a down-played drum track and lost of fraction of the impact on the chorus. This was the first time I’d noticed the band was missing the female backing singers. That partly accounted for the tougher sound of the set, compared to the last time I’d seen Rea play. A good move overall, even if I’m cribbing this track a tiny bit.
The band were a tight foil for Rea all night. Long-time collaborator Robert Awai was back in the band on second guitar after a few years away, this time with his son on bass. The other core members of the live band are also stalwarts: Martin Ditcham on drums and Neil Drinkwater on keyboards and accordion.
The mid-set highlights saw Rea stretch out and improvise with a guitar change for every song. ‘Money’ was angular and angry; ‘Stony Road’ built from searching, exploratory picking to a full-bloodied slide frenzy; and ‘The Road Ahead’ was a dirty, boogie-influenced, horn-backed stomp.
In between, the moody, tender ‘Til the Morning Sun Shines On Me and My Love’ and the airy ‘Looking for the Summer’ broke up the mood.
The set proper ended on a searing double header. ‘Stainsby Girls’ was given an inspired make over that the split the track into a vocal/piano piece ringing around the venue in heartfelt sincerity and then smashed it to pieces in surges of heavy slide guitar, sometimes raggedy, sometimes spine-tingling, always thrilling. George Thorogood eat your heart out.
Then ‘Road To Hell Parts 1 & 2’ built from an ethereal, spooky introduction to dish out a bit of power-chording and grandstanding
As if to emphasise the contrast snaking through the entire set, the first encore was a jazz-infused ‘On The Beach’ to provide a mellow foot-tapping moment that gave way to a power-packed, joyful ‘Let’s Dance’. Rea did indeed dance and even pirouetted a couple of times.
After reading an interview recently where he said he got dizzy on stage in the after-affects of his stroke, these ill-advised moves provided more tension in the show than I was anticipating. Nevertheless, he completed the manoeuvres without incident, waved and thanked the audience profusely and left the stage to wild applause.
Rea hadn’t yet played ‘Driving Home For Christmas’ on this tour, so I was dubious that we would get a second encore, but the band clearly deemed the gig late enough in the year to warrant its rendition. Cue ticker tape cannons, festive lights and fake snow.
I suspect Rea’s heart wasn’t really in this one. He missed out a few lyrics, commented that the middle eight was too high for him and then shuffled off during the instrumental ending. No matter. Everyone was on their feet singing all the words anyway. I don’t mind a little cheese to follow my steak dinner.
Rea is a unique performer with a back catalogue of diverse and sometimes schizophrenic material. He will remain an under-rated conundrum in the eyes of the wider public, but for those in the know, we will treasure these performances that are by turns powerful, tender, raw and fragile.
Review by Dave Atkinson
Josh Taerk’s latest Lockdown session was streamed on Sunday 25 October. More about Josh: http://getreadytorock.me.uk/blog/?s=%22Josh+Taerk%22
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 27 September 2020.
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