Rewind to September 2020. Music fans had been under house arrest for six months, and the joyous sardine tin of the front row had never felt so far away. But music will find a way. In that bleak month, when all seemed lost, Joe Bonamassa’s groundbreaking livestreamed concert from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium was the cavalry: a thrilling collision of sound, vision and next-generation technology, that saved 17,000 viewers around the world from the Covid blues and reminded us to hold on for better days.
Now, with the June 11th release of Now Serving: Royal Tea Live From The Ryman, you’re free to step back into Music City’s most iconic venue any time you like. Available on CD, DVD, Blu-Ray and Double LP, this might just be the best damn blues concert you’ll experience all year, showcasing cuts from 2020’s critically acclaimed and Billboard Blues Chart-topping album, Royal Tea, plus three tracks from the recent 20th Anniversary Edition of Bonamassa’s debut album, A New Day Now.
As Hollywood legend Jeff Daniels reminds us in his narrated introduction to Now Serving, Royal Tea started out as the purest of passion projects. A tip of the hat to the British blues that had lit Bonamassa’s fuse as a young guitarist – and a lyrical exploration of everything from the bluesman’s recent breakup to his therapy sessions – the album was recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios in January 2020, with a studio band that included Anton Fig (drums), Reese Wynans (keys) and Michael Rhodes (bass).
But when Covid struck, and the world’s live venues fell silent, Bonamassa realised a bolder plan was needed to bring the music to the people. The bluesman wasn’t the first artist to embrace livestreaming during lockdown – but from the technology to the maverick spirit, what he delivered at the Ryman Auditorium last September announced the format’s true possibilities.
With immersive camerawork that puts band and viewer nose-to-nose, a cutting-edge onstage video screen that matches the music with dramatic moving imagery, plus a thousand whimsical touches – from an audience of cardboard cut-outs to an onstage tea set – this was a show that broke the fourth wall, transplanting fans from 44 different countries direct to Tennessee.
That historic night in Nashville won Bonamassa unanimous acclaim for the fire in his performance and the sheer bravery of his high-wire act. But when you revisit Now Serving, you’ll be reminded that at the heart of this show are the best songs of the bluesman’s career. Try the dramatic orchestral sweep of the epic When One Door Opens or the furious wah-soaked riffing of I Didn’t Think She Would Do It. Take the rolling punches of High Class Girl and the molten heartbreak of Why Does It Take So Long To Say Goodbye, with the song’s emotional wrench reflected by the rain streaking down the screen. During the making of Royal Tea, Bonamassa spoke of writing songs that “dug a big hole” – and this setlist is an emotional excavation.
And if Now Serving offers catharsis to the listener, then for Bonamassa himself, the same is true. “I’ve always been a live performer,” he says. “As fun as Abbey Road was, I couldn’t wait to get out and play these songs live. This DVD is a snapshot of a concert performance within the confines of a vast sea change in the world. A world that had temporarily deemed us unnecessary. Nobody knows when I will ever get back to this stage in front of a full house again, but I sure do know that I do love it and miss you greatly.”
Now Serving: Royal Tea Live From The Ryman is released June 11th on CD, DVD, Blu-Ray and Double LP. More information here.