Robert Jon & The Wreck – Live At The Ancienne Belgique
After the last chord dies on closing track ‘Cold Night’, we get to hear a couple of seconds of the crowd cheering, and then they’re gone. Cut off in their prime. This, I have to tell you, is a wholly inadequate response to Live At The Ancienne Belgique. Here we have 74 minutes of rock’n’rollin’ live performance goodness, my friends, that deserves to end with sustained hollering, chanting and whistling that gradually fades out just as your pulse is returning to normal.
I mean, have yourself a listen to ‘Do You Remember’. There’s some ‘Jessica’-like guitar harmonies from Robert Jon Burrison and Henry James as a how’d-ya-do, teeing up ‘Night Moves’ style lyrics (“Do you remember when we were free? We were young and wild and seventeen.”) that are just the right side of sentimental, set to an irresistible, catchier-than-flu tune. And once they’ve let that sink in – whoosh! there’s lift-off as Henry James goes nuts on guitar, blazing a trail across the song and reeling you in with spells of tension and release.
The band take a breather after that while James does a bit of solo guitar-wrangling that heads into crowd-teasing, stop-start, call and response Angus Young territory, before he steps into the strut’n’twirl riff of ‘Hey Hey Mama’, and the rest of the gang lean into the offbeat rhythm with him, Steve Maggiora’s organ adding colour and drummer Andrew Espantman occasionally flicking at, I do believe, a cowbell. They stroll and swing through the song like a breeze, before James spices it up with a bout of wah-wah frenzy, warming things up for the moment, another verse and chorus down the road, when they explode into a storm of barrelling drums, racing bass from Warren Murrel, surging keys from Maggiora – and some gobsmacking, head shaking, rock’n’rollin’ guitar fireworks from James.
‘Blame It On The Whiskey’ starts off loose-limbed around a descending piano motif, and illustrates once again that they don’t lapse into predictable song structure. Some of those high-grade harmonies are to the fore (pepped up by a couple of additional ladies for this show), and there’s some squawking slide guitar soloing, then they subside into just drums and voices, taking a breather before changing the rhythm and propelling James into another stonking solo. But that’s just the curtain raiser for an extended, accelerating section worthy of ‘Freebird’, with frantic guitar over rattling drums and pounding piano. Hot damn!
But if these are blasts of sparks-flying musical spectacle, they also know how to keep it short’n’sharp and focus on the song doing the work, as on ‘Oh Miss Carolina’, with the singalong hook of its chorus soaring along on great harmonies then hammered home at the end. The ghost of ‘Mighty Quinn’ might be drifting around somewhere in the melody of ‘Don’t Me Go’, but it’s overtaken by the gutsy, harmony-laden nature of the dominant chorus, and injections of slide-guitar slithering. Or there’s the slow-quick assault of ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’, from their 2021 album of the same name, with another killer chorus rammed home by Maggiora’s barroom piano, and a slide solo from James that’s like a dragster tearing down the strip, plus a subtle, rolling-thunder bridge before they go for broke on the chorus again.
‘Tired Of Drinking Alone’ is less my cup of poison, a slower affair with lines like “I got a bottle o’wine, we both have plenty of heartache” lapsing into the kind of self-pitying country music lyrical stylings that are prone to infect Southern rock too often in my book. But that’s my personal pet peeve, and it’s still well executed, with some sweetly lachrymose slide guitar reinforcing its mood. ‘Old Friend’ could easily fall into a similar trap, but gets away with it, being a bitter “I’ve moved on” middle finger to an old flame – and with another hooky-as-hell chorus that they parade nakedly on an a cappella harmonies’n’handclaps finish.
And then there’s ‘Cold Night’. It starts with some rainfall-like Fender Rhodes piano from Maggiora, before they launch some anthemic guitar harmonies in an Allmans vein, and while I’d personally like them to wean themselves off that particular Southern rock trope, over-used as it is, they still do it splendidly. And after carefully building the song, they have some more guitar duetting to set the scene for an expansive Henry James solo, well counterpointed by piano and underscored by cacophonic drums from Espantman as it escalates into a blizzard of notes – but with purpose and intent, not noodling. And it sounds like they’re lining up a big finish at that point, but no – the storm abates, to be sure, for some excellent guitar and keyboard interplay, but only as a palate cleanser before they erupt into another, final torrent of mayhem.
So yeah, one or two Southern rock clichès crop up in the Wreckist oeuvre that I could personally live without, and I reckon a couple of different song selections could have made this set even better. But let’s not get picky. Because what we really have here is the latest stirring adventure by a band who are a tighter than a Victorian corset; a band who write terrific songs like falling off a log; a band that can go the whole hog from bang-it-out rocker, to sensitive ballad, to widescreen epic, and more besides. They’re a band led by a powerful, charismatic singer, with a 24-carat killer guitarist at his side, but who are absolutely an ensemble, with all the players performing critical roles with panache, right down – or up, maybe – to the harmonies they sprinkle over songs like gold dust.
You know what’s really impressive? The Wreck could go onstage somewhere tonight with a whole different set list, and still hit the same heights. But until the next time you get to see ‘em, Live At The Ancienne Belgique is a barnstorming document of Robert Jon & The Wreck doing their shake, rattle’n’rollin’ live thing, and you need it in your life.
Live At The Ancienne Belgique is released by Journeyman Records on 21 April, as a CD/DVD set, on vinyl, and digitally, and can be ordered here.
Review by Iain Cameron – www.bluesenthused.com