Gig review: ROBERT JON & THE WRECK – 100 Club, London, 23 September 2021

It was so good to be back. 18 long, dark months had passed without a ‘real’ gig. The prospect of Troy Redfern and Robert Jon & The Wreck tonight had me giddy with anticipation. The event did not disappoint.

Troy Redfern has been busy in the intervening period. An acoustic album in 2020 was followed by last month’s rip-snorting ‘…The Fire Cosmic!’ platter; and now a string of support and headline shows well into next year. The new album is a gutsy, in-your-face slab of slide grunge and blues that had made a big impact on me.

First up, ‘Sanctify’ set the tone with a pounding riff and sharp lines of fuzzed up slide work, with Redfern close up on the mic – half Cap’n Jack Sparrow, half High Plains Drifter – laying bare his unsanctified soul with growled lyrics. He looked and sounded the part. Nevertheless, I found myself glancing right, beyond the infamous pillar, for the other members of his power trio to emerge on the already cluttered stage. But no, this was a solo outing, with Redfern setting his own beats on a solitary kick drum.

In some respects, this was a shame because the album is chock-full of bold rhythms and pace changes that provide a platform for Redfern’s magic. I would have loved to hear those licks and runs supported by drums and bass. As it was, the more acoustic ‘Falling Down’ and the slower, rhythmically dynamic ‘Ghosts’ both fell into a very vibrant, but slightly similar and subtlety-free feedback and fuzztone furore.

On the other hand, many in the crowd wouldn’t have had the pleasure of hearing the new album and they were very much in to digging what was happening before them. A good policy, I thought, and I cracked on with the same outlook. The more obviously harder, rougher and louder pairing of ‘Backdoor Hoodoo’ and the superb ‘Waiting For Your Love’ were right in the slot.

During the latter, after a well-received piece of audience engagement on the chorus, Redfern nearly came a-cropper amongst the chaos of equipment on stage. He was trying to get closer to the crowd on the far side and just about untangled his lead from a mic stand without missing a note. You don’t get this with zoom-casts from musicians’ kitchens. Live music is back folks!

And how. Robert Jon & The Wreck simply blew the pace apart. Maybe I’m over-reacting to a live music drought. Or maybe this lot are just about the best Southern rock and blues outfit around right now. A packed, sweaty and noisy 100 Club audience would agree with the latter supposition.

I last saw these Californian rockers at Ramblin’ Man 2019, when in the heat of an afternoon slot, their set pitched a perfect laid-back, stretched-out boogie groove. They’ve been busy since then, just like Mr Redfern. 2020’s ‘Last Light On The Highway’ is, for my money their best album yet; and the current tour is in support of the excellent, gospel-infused ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’.

Their live show has stepped up too. This is a band who seem to have honed their craft despite the lockdowns: that perfect blend of intensity, emotion, wildness and calculation. Opener, ‘The Devil Is Your Only Friend’ was quickly followed by ‘Do You Remember’ and already punters were looking around at each other thinking that they were in for something special.

Mainman and second guitarist Robert Jon Burrison’s smooth voice belies his rugged appearance, sometimes reminiscent of Don Henley’s inflections. To his right, Henry James is a lead guitarist to savour. Behind him, the rhythm unit of Andrew Espantman (drums) and Warren Murrel (bass), neither of whom stopped grinning all night, took their cues through the subtlest of nods and looks.

Keyboard player Steve Maggiora was the coolest guy on stage. In a fetching paisley shirt, he is seen casually leaning back and plonking the keys on ‘Work It Out’ with one hand whilst the other is in his pocket. The band read the room expertly. There is no hiding place in the 100 Club.

‘Hey Hey Mama’ was the first time Henry James really cut loose. He played the song’s dirty, down-tuned riff effortlessly and then built a stunning solo that twisted and spiralled around the chorus; followed by a bit of tasty harmonizing work with Robert Jon. A good gig at this venue can be judged by how much precipitation clings to the giant ‘100’ behind the drum riser. At the end of this song, the sweat was already running freely down the digits.

Then the first of the fan favourites came with a rousing and powerful ‘Oh Miss Carolina’ and full throated audience accompaniment. There was a lovely moment when Robert Jon held the moment at the end of the song before the final crash and just looked round the room in wonder at the cheering audience.

There were changes of pace and moments to press the accelerator, such as ‘Blame It On The Whiskey’ held fast by a military drum beat until a time change signals the moment for James to unleash a pair of stunning solos – one slide, one picked – either side of the chorus.

James is a real talent. Stick thin, narrow shouldered and topped by an outrageous afro, he could have hidden behind the Gibson Explorer he wielded with such aplomb. As the gig progressed he became more assertive, more hungry, finding the middle of the stage more often and connecting with the crowd.

None of his moves and sounds felt like grandstanding though. This is a tight band and the solos and instrumental passages grew from within the songs, like on ‘Can’t Stand It’ and ‘Tired of Drinking Alone’. Here and there he traded lead licks with Robert Jon where the Allman Brothers-style harmonizing they found felt like it was simply part of their DNA.

The highlights flowed freely through a couple of ballads: ‘This Time Around’ had some lovely Hammond organ and lush dobro-style sustain on the guitar parts. Followed by ‘Gold’ for its first outing on tour. This tender, bittersweet track was steeped in gorgeous harmonies from the boys and had Robert Jon looking emotional and spent on its conclusion.

The band saved their most passionate work for the home run, continuing with the heaviest cut on view, ‘Don’t Let Me Go’, featuring James dealing in some scintillating slide work and grappling with a mountain of reverb. ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’ kept the hot mood bubbling and ‘Old Friend’ was a chance to sing and clap-along in a few communal moments. A mention here for Steve Maggiora who actually had both hands pummelling the keyboard at this point.

‘Cold Night’ has become something of a genuine showstopper. It builds from a piano intro into a sweeping vocal and finally explodes into a catatonic jam of twin lead breaks and keyboard/guitar trade-offs; punctured with James’ soaring solos, again right at the front of the stage throwing all the shapes in the book and being egged on by an ecstatic crowd.

‘On The Run’ brought matters to a close in a furious battery of amped-up southern swagger and set the seal on an excellent evening. In truth ‘Cold Night’ had already propelled this event into that rarefied atmosphere of unforgettable gigs for me.

This is a band with humility, integrity and sublime musicianship. They have classy songs, enthusiasm and a strong work ethic to back it up. Robert Jon & The Wreck are going places and it was a privilege to have been here for this.

Andy Nathan writes: I try and avoid hyperbole, but the new kings of southern-styled rock (albeit from California) delivered what will rank as one of the gigs of the year. Lasting respect is also due to Robert Jon and the Wreck for being the first American band, alongside Black Stone Cherry, to venture to these shores post-pandemic.

In an hour and a quarter set, little time was wasted on superfluous chat and while the jams did get longer in the closing part of the set, not a note was wasted or given over to self-indulgence.

Dave has captured the essence of a very special night in which two things in particular will stick in my memory. One was that Henry James was one of the best guitarists I’ve witnessed in a long time, with the fire of Skynyrd’s Allen Collins allied to a slide prowess worthy of Rory Gallagher. (His retro Afro was equally cool).

The other was a remarkable atmosphere of a sold out crowd (most of ‘mature’ years) reminding me of the days in the eighties and early nineties when you could feel the anticipation as the latest American sensations of the day played their debut UK gig at the Marquee. They announced during the show a further London gig at the Garage in May – do not miss it.

Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Paul Clampin

Additional reporting by Andy Nathan

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