For lovers of American southern rock music, The Harmonie was THE place to be last Sunday evening. Hailing from Orange County, California Robert Jon and The Wreck were really on fire for the closing night of their European tour. The only complaint I could make is that Sunday shows have to finish so damn early – who wants to go home from a concert at 9:30 pm? Not when there’s a great band onstage who seem like they would happily play all night!
It’s hard to make any fair judgements about support act Bywater Call since the normally seven-piece band was culled to a duo on this tour. A pretty good duo I hasten to add though, and when they were doing covers they were at their best such as on ‘Rollin and Tumblin‘ or Robert Johnson’s classic ‘Come on in my kitchen’. Whilst there was plenty of raw energy in Dave Barnes’ acoustic picking and he valiantly covered rhythm duties via a bass drum effect foot pedal, the band’s own numbers came across a little tame in comparison to the cover songs that had their origins in sparse one-man arrangements.
When it came to the band’s own, presumably seven-piece, numbers they were a little less convincing to my ears. I’m sure a lot of that was down to the simplified arrangements. I will say that Meghan Parnell showed what a fine blues-rock voice she possesses when she joined RJTW (that’s Robert Jon and band in abbreviation) later in the evening and that, coupled with the duo’s tangible enthusiasm and likeability, when Bywater Call return to Germany in their seven-piece incarnation later in the year they will be on my ‘to see’ list and should be on yours too.
You know how some bands just ‘look’ like someone you want to see? even if you haven’t heard a single note in advance but just saw the posters? Robert Jon & The Wreck were one of those bands to me. Singer Robert Jon Burrison’s Billy Gibbons beard and battered Texas stetson. Guitarist Henry James’s Santana/Hendrix/Lynott curls. The impish grin of drummer Andrew Espantman… They all conjure up fine musicians and fine bands like Thin Lizzy and The Allman Brothers. I was pleased to discover that the similarities are not just skin deep.
‘Pain No More’ is a comfortable mid-tempo rock song to warm up the fingers and the amps and already there’s a hint musically of Lynyrd Skynyrd. They had me hook line and sinker though from the next offering: ‘Do You Remember‘ a catchy rocker with an irresistible twin guitar riff that screams the glory days of Thin Lizzy. Yes, I do remember being a kid as the song asks. I remember the magic of bands playing music like this in the late seventies – melodic rock with catchy guitar lines played by musicians exuding energy and sweat in equal proportions.
The rest of the evening’s music switched effortlessly between 70’s Rock and laid-back Southern sounds. New addition to the band, keyboarder Jake Abernathie, certainly played a huge part in this with his tasteful Hammond sound. He also synched perfectly with the rhythm section of bassman Warren Murrel and Andrew Espantman’s rock-solid drumming, most notably on the excellent boogie of ‘High Time’
This being the last night of their European tour RJTW were clearly eager to go out on a high and thankfully for us that meant almost half the show seemed to be played like it was an encore. Meg from Bywater Call joined in for the Southern Bluesy ‘Oh Miss Carolina’ onwards, her vocals blending well with those of Robert Jon and showed her to be well capable of handling whole verses alone when called upon. How much of this was rehearsed? Who cares, it sounded spontaneous and it sounded Rock n Roll.
It wasn’t soon before Dave Barnes also joined the fun and from the smile on his face as he traded riffs with Henry James it clearly was fun. So much fun in fact that to the end of a fine rendition of ‘The Weight’ Barnes bust a string on his only electric guitar. Before he had time to snap it off from the guitar James was offering him the pick of his own guitar stand. A fine gesture and an indication of how much these people have enjoyed each other’s company on the road.
I was already more than happy with the music I’d heard this evening, and then came the final encore. On the scribbled set-list stuck to the stage floor were the letters ‘LLOTH’. They turned out to be an abbreviation for the best mini-rock epic I’ve heard since Meatloaf saw Paradise by the dashboard light. ‘Last Light On The Highway‘ had me leaving a venue with the last tune firmly stuck in my head in the way that so rarely happens at shows these days. It sounds like something you think you first heard on MTV. The classic hit that classic rock bands send their audiences home with. How can it be that Robert Jon and The Wreck aren’t playing stadiums for 500 Euro meet and greet audiences? Well maybe because the band is as down-to-earth as their audience. Or maybe we’re just very lucky to have caught them before the leap to greatness they deserve. Word is that they will be back this way again before too long so let’s hope it’s a venue built for music rather than lifeless auditoriums.
For the moment at least, forget ‘meet and greet’, the package you get with RJTW is not ornately wrapped, it’s ‘just’ a music box actually. With a little sweat, a little humour, a lot of smiles and a lot of passionate playing. Long may it remain so.