ROYAL TEA ALBUM BIO:
If the walls of Abbey Road Studios could talk, they’d tell the greatest stories in rock ‘n’ roll. From the first Beatles audition in 1962, through Pink Floyd’s mind-expanding 1973 opus, The Dark Side Of The Moon, to The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack and Radiohead’s The Bends, this one-time Georgian townhouse in north-west London is the backdrop to every cultural flashpoint that counts.
But even Abbey Road had never experienced anything quite like Joe Bonamassa at full throttle. “You could hear us from the canteen,” smiles the bluesman of Royal Tea sessions in January 2020. “We’d get these weird looks from the orchestra guys downstairs. Because we play really loud…”
If you know anything about the post-millennium’s breakout bluesman, and pre-eminent Anglophile, you’ll know that blowing the roof off Abbey Road is a lifelong ambition. During his three-decade ascent, Bonamassa has ticked off most of his schoolyard fantasies, from bringing out Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall, to slinging Rory Gallagher’s beat-to-hell ’61 Strat at the Hammersmith Apollo. But tracking a full album in Studio One, on the same floor where The Beatles once broadcast All You Need Is Love to the world? “This whole adventure,” admits Bonamassa, “was a bucket-list thing for me.”
Royal Tea brings Bonamassa full-circle. These ten tracks reconnect the 43-year-old bandleader with the guitar-slinging kid from upstate New York, who stumbled across Jeff Beck Group’s Let Me Love You, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton and Cream’s Disraeli Gears in his dad’s vinyl collection – and promptly swore a lifelong blood oath to the British blues. “I would have been about twelve years old, and it was the sound I heard in my head. Like, ‘OK, I’m in. That’s what I want to be’. If I had a time machine, I’d have been born in ’46, turned twenty in ’66 – and come here, to London.”
Since his 2000 debut, A New Day Yesterday, that founding influence has stayed close to the surface of Bonamassa’s 14 solo album catalogue. Yet he’s always let his choice of studio infuse his work, whether stirring the vibe of the Greek island of Santorini into 2010’s Black Rock, placing his bets on Sin City for 2014’s Vegas-tracked Different Shades Of Blue, or working with the cream of Nashville on 2016’s Blues Of Desperation. “Where you record an album leaves a fingerprint on the music,” he points out. “This album is a snapshot, too.”
Naturally, the backdrop of Abbey Road demanded an album of British-flavoured blues. But even before the sessions, Bonamassa immersed himself in the culture, living in London over summer 2019 to let the capital’s pulse and daily rhythms flow down his antennae, wash over his songcraft and spice his new material. “I came here with no songs,” he remembers, “just a notepad and some good intentions.”
Co-writing Royal Tea with a cast of homegrown notables including former Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden, ex-Cream lyricist Pete Brown and national-treasure piano man Jools Holland – not to mention trolleydashing Denmark Street’s guitar shops for British-made amps – only added to the vibe. “Writing this record in London has done its job,” reflects Bonamassa. “It really does sound inherently British. Bernie and I, we finish each other’s sentences. We’re cut from the same cloth. One of the things about Bernie is, I just have to ask him, ‘What would the British do?’ He had all of those chord changes. And I’m like, ‘Ah, that’s the sound’. And then you get all of these tunes…”
One suspects that Sir Edward Elgar – the celebrated British composer who led a performance of Land Of Hope And Glory for the official opening of Abbey Road Studios on November 12th, 1931 – would approve of the swoop of strings and brass that sets up Royal Tea’s opening track. “Having that very British-sounding orchestra at the front of When One Door Opens,” explains Bonamassa, “just sets the tone for the album. And then Kevin came up with the heavy riff at the end and made it into this epic thing.”
Epic, perhaps, but also deeply intimate. From that jump-off, this ten-track record unfolds as perhaps the most autobiographical of Bonamassa’s career, whether he’s examining a recent failed relationship on the reflective slow-blues of Why Does It Take So Long To Say Goodbye, or recalling his aborted attempt at therapy on the Eagles-meets-Revolver rocker, A Conversation With Alice.
“Lyrically, Royal Tea is a more biting record,” Bonamassa explains, “and it’s a more personal record. I went through a breakup last year. It was an amicable breakup, but it was still a breakup. And sometimes, you just have to look at yourself in the mirror. Like, it’s not them, it’s you. That’s a big theme on the record. It’s like, what makes me good at my job is what sometimes burns people out. I’m not happy until I’m either unhappy, overworked, or a combination of them both.”
Not that Royal Tea is a downer. Clearly buzzing off his status as an honourary Londoner, Bonamassa runs the lyrical gamut, from his bemused observations of the British monarchy on the title track’s rising groove, to the edgy, harp-bolstered strut of Lookout Man. “I wrote the song Royal Tea on the same morning that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their resignation from the royal family,” he explains. “I guess Lookout Man is really an old-school bravado song. All those old blues guys, they’d be like, ‘I’m the smoothest MF-er in town’. To me, it was like a throwback to that kind of tune.”
Fast-forward to January 2020, and it was no wonder that the restored lineup hit the rescheduled sessions like a train, cutting fast and trusting their instincts. “These are all A-plus players,” says Bonamassa. “So they get their heads around the songs fast, they chart it out and we’ll go through it. Now, if it’s a very simple song, and it plays itself, then it’s one take. If it’s a little wonky, second take. If it’s more involved, it may be three takes. But that’s about it. If it goes past four, then we’re tired, or the song just doesn’t work. And that’s good, because you keep that freshness. You’re not thirty or forty takes in. If you’re doing thirty takes, then you must really believe in that song. Because I would be gone, twenty takes ago. Let’s play another tune, y’know?”
That fast-moving ethos keeps Royal Tea energised, whether on the wah-pedal clatter of I Didn’t Think She Would Do It, or Lonely Boy’s raucous rave-up (the version you hear on the album is mostly drawn from the warm-up, whose joyous spontaneity couldn’t be topped). And while Bonamassa’s fabled fretwork is always spellbinding, it’s never gratuitous. “I mean, there’s a couple of big solos, but I don’t think people buy my records now because of, like, ‘I want to see if he can play’. I’ve kinda established that.
“What I’ve been really getting into lately,” he counters, “is does my playing dig a big hole? Does it mean something? You listen to Tony Iommi or Eric Clapton play guitar – it digs the biggest hole. Beyond The Silence doesn’t even have a guitar solo. It’s like, enough’s enough, y’know?”
Nor does the Royal Tea tracklisting outstay its welcome. “It’s lean, not bloated,” says Shirley. “I think this may be one of the more diverse and accessible albums that Joe has ever made. I mean, he’s really focused on making this album a statement.”
Testament to that wham-bam philosophy is that, just eight days later, they were done, the band splitting for the four corners of the globe, beating the coronavirus out of the blocks by a few weeks. “We were lucky,” considers Bonamassa, “because we finished recording in January. If this album had been held back again, you really would start to think it was cursed.”
Ultimately, from the jaws of disaster, Joe Bonamassa has snatched a career-best release with Royal Tea, chalking up another chapter for the Abbey Road folklore, and finally delivering the album he’s dreamt of since the start. “The reason I wanted to come here,” considers the guitarist, “was for myself, the band and the fans. The P.T. Barnum in me was going, ‘Hey, this would be a cool event’. It was a risk coming over here, and this album has fought us to get here. But I think we’ve pulled it off…”