Thursday, 2 January 2020

Chris Rea - The Nineties And Beyond (1991-2017)



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The albums covered here are:-

Auberge (1991)
God's Great Banana Skin (1992)
Dancing Down The Stony Road (2002)
Blue Guitars (2005)
Santo Spirito Blues (2011)
and Road Songs For Lovers (2017)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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AUBERGE (1991)

1. Auberge
2. Gone Fishing
3. You're Not A Number
4. Heaven
5. Set Me Free
6. Red Shoes
7. Winter Song
8. Sing A Song Of Love To Me
9. Every Second Counts
10. Looking For The Summer
11. And You My Love
12. The Mention Of Your Name   

Chris Rea was a more successful artist by now, finally, having been putting albums out since 1978. This was actually his eleventh album. It was the follow-up to the dark-ish Dire Straits-influenced and bluesy rock of The Road To Hell, which was a hit of an album. This offering is less dark, more laid-back but still solid in its tough AOR rock appeal. It is definitely rock for reflective, hard but surprisingly sensitive men approaching forty. Just like Rea himself.
                  
Auberge takes 2:40 to burst into action, following some footsteps/background noise sound effects and some slow, bluesy slide guitar. When it does, it is a riffy and brassily upbeat rock number. Rea's gritty, flinty voice is the dominant feature. It is a warm, reassuring but tough voice. Gone Fishing is a beautiful, philosophical song with a Springsteen-esque male view of life and its expectations. You're Not A Number is probably the first track thus far in Rea's career which is done in the muscular blues rock style that would continue into the new millennium and would populate a lot of the huge Blue Guitars project in 2005. The seeds for that album were sown here. Another thing one notices about this album is the improvement in its sound quality from the eighties releases.

Heaven is a mournful, slow, emotive ballad in that sleepy contemporary Eric Clapton style. Set Me Free is cut from the same cloth too, although more bluesy in its lyrics about "looking down that road out of town". Some great guitar and a huge orchestration appears at the end. Red Shoes, after an odd intro played by what sounds like a tuba, cranks up into another kicking, horn-powered rocker, in the Let's Dance style. Winter Song is a slow song with vague Sting hints about it.

  

Sing A Song Of Love To Me is also a soporific, late-night crooner. Four of the last five tracks have been in such a mode and it is this that makes this a bit of a low-key album. I prefer my Chris Rea a bit more bluesy and rocking, or at least for around 60% of the material. The balance here is a bit too far the other way, for me. The mood is changed a little, though, with the summery reggae of Every Second Counts. Rea and whichever musicians he has used have always been able to play convincing reggae, something not true of all artists. An incongruous piece of orchestration at the end spoils it slightly, though. Looking For The Summer is a gently shuffling number vaguely reminiscent in its refrain of The Days Of Pearly SpencerAnd You My Love is waves-washing on the beach pleasant enough. The Mention Of Your Name is a Frank Sinatra "dark period" torch-style song. It is another slow-paced song to end what had become a very slow-paced album.

Personally, I always have a bit of a problem with post 1990 albums that get near to, or over, the hour mark. I feel there is a succinct punchiness to a traditional seventies-style forty minutes offering. Shaving fifteen minutes off would definitely improve Auberge.

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GOD'S GREAT BANANA SKIN (1992)

1. Nothing To Fear
2. Miles Is A Cigarette
3. God's Great Banana Skin
4. 90's Blues
5. Too Much Pride
6. Boom Boom
7. I Ain't The Fool
8. There She Goes
9. I'm Ready
10. Black Dog
11. Soft Top, Hard Shoulder      

This was the album which saw Chris Rea's long-held love of the blues finally start to really poke its head above the surface. The easy listening vibe created in the late eighties/early nineties is still there, but there is also bluesy guitar prevalent and a laid-back ambience persists all around the album. It is even more low-key than its predecessor, Auberge had been. Rea was certainly laying down a marker as to the sort of material he wanted to be known for at this time. You don't get too much difference in a whole row of Rea albums around now until he went full-on bluesy at the end of the nineties, but there were definitely signs on here.
                           
Nothing To Fear begins with two and a half minutes of atmospheric, deep, bluesy background guitar before a gently rhythmic wine bar-style beat kicks in, together with Rea's smoky, warm reassuring voice. A killer slide guitar solo features near the end. The track fades out with a real Dire Straits feel to it. Miles Is A Cigarette, which presumably references Miles Davis, is suitably late night and jazzy, with A Kind Of Blue influences. Rea praises the pleasures of smoking on the song, something nobody minded in 1992, funny how a couple of decades later, smoking seems such a thing of the past. As a lifelong non-smoker, it does to me anyway, maybe not to others.

  

God's Great Banana Skin is slightly more upbeat, a bluesy rocker with a catchy vocal refrain and more trademark slide guitar. 90's Blues is a Knopfler-esque blues, both musically and in its laconic vocal delivery. "Well the fat man took my money..." is such a Knopfler-inspired line. It has a rich, deep chugging bass line too. The Rea guitar at the end is stunning. Too Much Pride is a solid mid-paced rocker with a sleepy vocal. Again, it is very Dire Straits-ish. Boom Boom is in the same vein, but bluesier and similar to some of the material on 2005's vast Blue Guitars project.

I Ain't The Fool is a muscular bluesy rock ballad as to is the slightly more laid-back and melodic There She Goes. The latter has a lovely guitar solo piece in the middle. I'm Ready is probably the album's most riffy, out-and-out rocker with some excellent guitar and an infectious Stonesy riff. Black Dog (not the Led Zeppelin song) is another lively, upbeat rocker. Soft Top, Hard Shoulder is similarly appealing. The album has ended with three more pumped-up rock songs, but overall this was another very gentle, reflective piece of work.

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DANCING DOWN THE STONY ROAD (2002)

1. Easy Rider
2. Stony Road
3. Dancing The Blues Away
4. Catfish Girl
5. Burning Feet
6. Slow Dance
7. Segway
8. Missisippi 2
9. So Lonely
10. Heading For The City
11. Ride On
12. When The Good Lord Talked To Jesus
13. Qualified
14. Sun Is Rising
15. Someday My Peace Will Come
16. Got To Be Moving On
17. Ain't Going Down This Way
18. Changing Times
19. The Hustler
20. Give That Girl A Diamond   

In many ways this was the forerunner of the monumental Blue Guitars project. This was the album which saw Chris Rea change direction from his radio-friendly, “easy listening” style which had dominated his output in the late 1980s and 1990s to a style which saw him mine the rich seam of his beloved blues.
                         
This is a double album, and is maybe just a bit too sprawling (as double albums usually are) but there is some quality blues rock on here - Heading For The City with some trademark red hot slide guitar on it, Mississippi 2, Easy RiderDancing The Blues Away, the swamp blues of Catfish Girl (which would appear again on Blue Guitars), and the evocative, soulful Stony Road. So Lonely is a mournful slow blues, as indeed is the almost spiritual Ride OnWhen The Good Lord Talked To Jesus is another spiritual-influenced heartfelt, yearning blues. Sun Is Rising starts as a slow lament of a blues and ends up as an upbeat, gospel celebration, both musically and lyrically. You could easily imagine this being sung in church. Then there is the intoxicating rhythm of Got To Be Moving On. Check out the slide guitar on Ain’t Going Down This Way too.

  

Probably the best blues is to be found in the second half of the album’s twenty tracks. However, all of it is impressive.

Rea stated that this was very much a Delta Blues album as opposed to say a Chicago Blues one. Delta bluesmen sang of hardship, poverty, religious faith and a recognition of their own mortality, whereas their Chicago equivalents often sang of   girls, drink, drugs and money. This was a blues that reached down deep into one’s mortal soul.

Rea’s voice is so suited to these tunes - rich, deep, expressive and sad. Of course, his guitar is up there with the best in the business and the musicians he employs are always of the highest standard. Just listen to Qualified as an example. 

Rea also employs the trick of adding false crackling sounds to give it that blues “authenticity” on some of the tracks for the first time. 

This album began a journey into the blues that was still present on his albums in 2017, through Blue GuitarsSanto Spirito Blues to Road Songs For Lovers. If it were not for the huge presence of Blue Guitars, this would be considered Rea’s blues masterpiece.

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BLUE GUITARS (2005)

  

This really is a phenomenal piece of work, and that is an understatement. While undergoing a period of serious ill health, Chris Rea decided to record eleven albums covering eleven different styles of his beloved blues genre, covering its development through from its early roos to more modern incarnations.

One can never listen to it too much, because it is such a gargantuan collection, one will always discover new delights in it. Just pick an album at random, play a few, or play the whole caboodle at random. Or else plough your way through it every couple of years.Here are the various albums:-

1. BEGINNINGS



This goes back to the style of the first blues songs, handed down, by word of mouth and the teaching of musical skills, by West African “griots”, often in slavery in the USA. The life was unbearably hard, brutal, oppressive and generally a colossal strain. This is reflected in the heartfelt music, with titles such as Cry For Home and the sadness is often inextricably linked to a deep religious faith in songs like Lord Tell Me It Won’t Be LongPraise The LordSweet Sunday and Sing Out The Devil. The spectre of slavery is present too - Boss Man Cut My Chains and White Man ComingThe King Who Sold His Own indicates that many slaves were sold into bondage by their own rulers. Many of these songs are dubbed with false crackling noises at the beginning to give them an “authenticity”. Eventually the crackling fades away. It can be a bit irritating after a while, but I understand the intention behind it.

The music is very much that of West Africa - Mali and Senegal, as opposed to the blues as we have come to know it. Here, though, is it where it began. Just listen to that percussion on “West Africa”. African blues as its best.

2. COUNTRY BLUES



Now we move properly to the Southern slaving states of the USA, for songs that tell their own sad story - Man Gone MissingKKK BluesIf You’ve Got A Friend In Jesus. More crackling noises, like the original blues recordings from the 1930s and 1940s. There is some hope for freedom and salvation on some of these songs though - Head Out On The HighwayGoing Up To Memphis and Ticket To Chicago, to the emancipated North, of course. There was also aimless wandering and alcoholism expressed in Walkin’ Country Blues and Too Much Drinkin’.The African percussion-based instruments had been replaced now by, more often than not, a single guitar or a harmonica.

3. LOUISIANA & NEW ORLEANS



When the African rhythms and the Southern states guitar and lyrics found their way to Creole and Cajun country, new instruments were added - banjos, accordions, mandolins, clarinets, piano and, of course the French influence - Dance Avec Moi and Le Fleur De La Vie. Jazz roots also came from this music. The blues mixed with cajun rhythms and stylings and the Delta Blues were born.

4. ELECTRIC MEMPHIS BLUES



Now, by the time the blues reached Memphis, crowds were getting bigger to watch the musicians play and this coincided with the the appearance of the electric guitar, which was just made for the blues. The artists needed to be louder to be heard above the crowds. Electric blues are what influenced the great sixties British blues groups - The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, John Mayalls’ Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, Duster Bennett, The Animals, Chris Farlowe and so on. The influence went on to blues rock bands like Cream, Free and Led Zeppelin. Electric Guitar and Electric Memphis Blues need no explanation.

5. TEXAS BLUES



Another state, yet another direction for the blues - take the basic concept, move it into the "modern wild west" and what you get out of it is straightforward Texas Blues. It's all in there, endless highways, run-down trucker bars, oil, dirt, cowboy boots, stories about life on the move, all down in Texas, all just as sad as the original Blues  - Lone Star BoogieNo Wheels BluesTruck Stop. Romantic ones appear too - Angelina and Houston Angel. Life wasn’t all bad. The mixture of the basic blues concept with more country and western styled instruments such as slide guitars and harmonica gave the Texas blues a rawer, yet again still instantly recognisable sound, which has played a major role in music ever since including such artists as Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top.

6. CHICAGO BLUES



As mentioned earlier, Chicago was a destination for the Afro-American diaspora to move North, to a new and hopefully happier life, to an extent. Here the blues developed even more electrically than those in Memphis and Texas. The music was tougher, harder, edgier. The jazz tradition in Chicago helped incorporate the saxophone into the blues sound. Lyrically, the hope of freedom and religious devotion were far less important than the making of money, the bedding of women, the taking of drugs and the surviving the bitterly cold Northern winters in impoverished ghetto-like housing developments. Maxwell StreetShe’s A Whole Heap Of TroubleCatwalk WomanTo Get Your Love and Jazzy Blue all exemplify these conceits. I’m Moving Up, of course, is about moving “up” to Chicago from the South.

7. BLUES BALLADS



The blues fused with jazz to express love, lost love and lust over a laid-back, smoothy, polished backing far removed from the blues’ primitive African roots. The old sadness and hardship is still there, though, in songs like Deep Winter Blues and I Love The Rain and My Deep Blue Ways. These songs still express the essential blues sensibilities.

8. GOSPEL, SOUL, BLUES & MOTOWN



Using the basic rhythms of the blues, the poppy commercial sound of Detroit’s Tamla Motown saw those original African influences producing prefect two-three minute chart hit singles. The religious fervour of those early days found its way to soul singers who learned their trade in Church gospel choirs. Love songs such as Sweet Love and Break Another Piece Of My Heart and spiritual gospel songs like Ball & Chain and Gospel Trail show both genres as being inextricably linked to those original blues.

9. CELTIC & IRISH BLUES



Across the waters to mingle now with white Celtic and Scottish indigenous music, blending the integral sadness of the lyrics from those cultures with the blues rhythms meant an intoxicating blend, originally played by artists such as Van Morrison and Them and progressing to rock acts like Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy. Drinking and being a long way from home are favourite subjects - “Too Far From Home” and the self-pitying Last Drink are good examples, together with the Irish folk mysticism of titles like Wishing Well and Lucky Day.

10. LATIN BLUES



Does the blues have anywhere else to go? You bet. To Brazil and Cuba, often the destination for African slaves. Blues guitar mingling with Cuban style piano and Latin guitar styles and Latin rhythms. Even Jamaican reggae had that “down at heel, life is a challenge” blues mentality in its lyrics, together with a strong cultural awareness of the problems caused by slavery over 400 years. Immigration BluesSun Is HotBajan Blue express blues-like problems in an idyllic, warm surrounding.

11. 60s & 70s



The British blues explosion of the mid-late 60s saw respect being given from a largely white audience and largely white bands to what now seemed to be a music from a long time ago, sung by octogenarian black men called “blind” something or other. The blues had come a long way. 200 years down the line, it had a new audience. The songs are all different, no real lyrical link as compared with the others, other than they had the blues, in one way or another. As we all have. There is even a song about TV motoring presenter Jeremy Clarkson in Clarkson Blues. I wonder what those poor slaves long ago would have made of that?


I think those people would listen to this music and love it. Chris Rea has recorded his own history of the blues here. As I said before, a remarkable achievement.

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SANTO SPIRITO BLUES (2011)

1. Dancing My Blues Away
2. Rock And Roll Tonight
3. Never Tie Me Down
4. The Chance Of Love
5. The Last Open Road
6. Electric Guitar
7. Money
8. The Way She Moves
9. Dance With Me All Night Long
10. Think Like A Woman
11. You Got Lucky
12. Lose My Heart In You                           
13. I Will Go On

After the magnificence of Blue Guitars, six full years earlier, it would always be really difficult to top such a collection. Having returned to his blues roots for that magnum opus, Chris Rea stayed with them for this album.

This is very much an upbeat, blues rock n roll album, exemplified by tracks such as Rock And Roll Tonight, a sort of fast blues rock by numbers - pounding drums, cowbell shots and Rea’s screaming slide guitar cutting through like a hot knife through butter.  Never Tie Me Down is in exactly the same vein as indeed is the opener, the excellent Dancing My Blues Away. Rea’s gravelly voice doesn’t let you down, neither does his guitar or the more than competent backing band of experienced musicians. This album is a vibrant, uplifting, energetic listen, but as with his next one (in 2017) one feels that he could do this on automatic pilot. It is in his blood. Fair enough though, because it is damn good. Like Van Morrison (who has also “come home to the blues”), you now know what you are going to get.

The Chance Of Love is a fast-paced, very Mark Knopfler solo/Dire Straits-ish piece of mature rock, full of incisive guitar licks and cynical, world-weary lyrics. The Last Open Road is back to the old slide guitar and the full on rock sound again. If you like this sort of thing, you can’t really go wrong with it, but it a tad formulaic. Never mind, it’s a good formula, after all.

  

Electric Guitar is a reworked version of the song that first appeared on the Electric Memphis Blues album contained within Blue Guitars. It is a little less rootsy and edgy here, less “authentic”. Backed here with horns and a bit more of a “pop” feel, despite Rea’s slide guitar still dominating. It has some Stonesy riffs in that weren’t there before. Money would also appear on another album - the next one. Here it has that somewhat phoney “crackly” intro (as if it is an old scratched 45 rpm single) and a jazzy opening that continues for two minutes before fading away as a heavy rock beat and a country-ish mandolin-style guitar sound take over. The later version would be far more of a straightforward blues rock workout. Either are impressive, but I prefer the latter. The Way She Moves is a mysterious, edgy southern-style blues that would not have been out of place somewhere on Blue Guitars. It is one the best pure blues tracks on the album. Again, there are some Mark Knopfler similarities in Rea’s vocal delivery. Dance With Me All Night Long is another swampy sort of blues, a bit Willy De Ville in style. Think Like A Woman is just a beautiful, sad but melodic almost Springsteenesque ballad, with Rea’s voice on top heart-breaking timbre.

The album ends in something of a laid-back low-key fashion, after what was a quite powerful opening half. The vaguely poppy You Got Lucky is followed by the almost comatose Lose My Heart In You sort of symbolises this. It’s a nice relaxing change from the rest of the album though. I Will Go On is an anthemic, Celtic-feeling slow closer - soulful voice and soul organ and some crying slide guitar to sign off. Inspirational. Sometimes Chris Rea just hits the spot.

Overall, this is a quality piece of work throughout.

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ROAD SONGS FOR LOVERS (2017)

1. Happy On The Road
2. Nothing Left Behind
3. Road Songs For Lovers
4. Money
5. Two Lost Souls
6. Rock My Soul
7. Moving On
8. The Road Ahead
9. Last Train
10. Angel Of Love
11. Breaking Point
12. Beautiful                
                       
Six years after his previous, bluesy album, Santo Spirito Blues, Chris Rea returned with a more mainstream, radio-friendly album. Yes, it still has that blues influence underpinning it, particularly in the opening song, Happy On The Road, but laid-back, melodic slowies like the beautiful Nothing Left Behind and the title track, Road Songs For Lovers see more of the AOR soft rock that endeared Rea to the Radio 2 crowd in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is immaculately played traditional low key rock. Firm drums, solid bass, nice piano, keyboards and occasional saxophone and, of course, Rea’s deep, evocative, soulful voice, which seems to get better with age.

Lyrically, it is all about couples travelling together, on the road, in cars on trains. However, the old blues conceits are never far from the surface - a track like Money (re-worked after being on the previous album) is a wonderful slice of contemporary blues rock. Industrial, powerful, thumping and lifted even higher by Rea’s trademark, piercing slide guitar. Great part at the conclusion of this song.

The Road Ahead is a similar, slide-enhanced rumbling, cooking blues. Last Train has another excellent slide ending. To be honest, Chris Rea seems capable of putting songs like this out in his sleep. You know what you’re going to get and if you like it, that’s great.

 

Upbeat, commercial, blues-influenced songs like Moving On  would not have sounded out of place on the “60s and 70s” album in the Blue Guitars collection. Nice brass backing and slightly funky guitar breaks.

This album avoids being buried in the blues, however, and there is always a traditional Chris Rea late night, smoochy ballad like the yearning Two Lost Souls, or Angel Of Love to counter the often blistering power of the blues tracks. In this respect it differs somewhat from the previous album. In many ways, it is a satisfying mix.

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