Gig Review: Robert Jon & The Wreck with Special Guest Laura Evans
Thekla, Bristol, UK
May 9, 2022
By Ellie Rogers
Southern Californian blues rockers Robert Jon & The Wreck are back on the road again in the UK, kicking off the first night of their 12-show stint at Bristol’s legendary floating venue, Thekla. Moored at the East Mud Dock, the former cargo ship has been rocking with live music since the mid-1980s (although back then, it was known by the rather excellent name of ‘The Old Profanity Showboat’) and has seen many bands pass through on their way to greatness over the years.
Thanks to the success of their latest album Shine a Light on Me Brother And the quintet’s reputation for conjuring electrifying live performances, Robert Jon & The Wreck has drawn a full house – an impressive feat for a Monday night. Also aboard the ship is special guest Laura Evans, who’s been invited to join the band for the entirety of this UK run.
Clad in flares and some very high heels, the singer/songwriter takes to the stage with a beaming smile at around 8:30pm – accompanied by talented young British guitarist Joe Coombs. Laura’s voice has both stunning clarity and warmth to it, and her self-penned, semi-autobiographical tunes like ‘Fool’ and ‘I’m Alright’ set the tone for a night full of audience participation and singalong opportunities. A particular highlight of her set also comes in the form of a soulful rendition of Chris Stapleton’s ‘Arkansas’, with impressive vocal chops from Laura and nimble fretwork from Joe.
In the lull between sets, the crowd bunches to the front, with some of the more studious among them craning for a closer look at guitarist Henry James’ pedalboard and rack of guitars, which contains a red Gibson SG Special, and Epiphone Firebird and an unusual looking Eastman electric guitar. Then, just before 9:30pm, there’s a movement in the wings and members of The Wreck start to emerge from the darkness – all clutching cans of beer, and pursued by the main man, Robert Jon Burrison.
After a brief exchange of looks between band members that seems to translate as, “Ready boys?” They launch straight into their soon to be released new single ‘She’s a Fighter’. It’s a characteristically uplifting goodtime jam with all the ingredients fans have come to know and love about Robert Jon & The Wreck: a catchy refrain, great vocal harmonies, a thunderous backbeat, and some serious six string action from guitar manhandler in chief, Henry James .
Next up, comes a blazing rendition of ‘Do You Remember’ from 2020’s Last Light On The Highway – complete with incendiary Thin Lizzy-esque harmonized lead guitar lines performed by James and Burrison. It’s a nostalgic tune and the observation that Henry James cuts a silhouette not unlike that of a young Phil Lynott adds to the 1970s throwback feel of it in the very best of ways.
Following in quick succession come crowd pleasers like ‘Everyday’ and ‘Oh Miss Carolina’ and it doesn’t take much encouragement to get the crowd (and, in some cases, air guitaring) along to both.
Those on the ship’s top deck are watching from behind a mesh grill, presumably to stop them from an overenthusiastically crowd surfing down to the deck below. But, thanks to this uplifting southern-rock-meets-gospel-blues soundtrack, it’s hard not to think of the scene in The Blues Brothers movie where the boys play at a less than friendly roadhouse with only a chicken wire cage to protect them from an onslaught of beer bottles and jeers. This Robert Jon & The Wreck loving crowd, however, launches only woops and cheers from above.
Backing up James and Burrison is the ever-nodding bassist Warren Murrell, who – like Jake and Elwood Blues – has managed to wear sunglasses indoors and somehow make it look cool. Behind him sits rock solid drummer, Andrew Espantman. Together they make up the smiliest rhythm section you could ever hope to find. To Burrison’s left sits a slightly less familiar face in the form of keyboardist Bob Fridzema who’s filling in for Steve Maggiora while he tours the US with Toto. Still, you wouldn’t know that Fridzema is a relative newcomer to the musical brotherhood due to his on-stage charisma, furiously fast playing and contribution to the unit’s overall tightness.
For ‘Desert Sun’ Burrison again has the whole crowd as his willing choir of backing vocalists, and James channels the likes of Duane Allman or Warren Haynes as he adorns the song with lots of tasty Southern slide licks. By this point, it’s getting pretty sweaty and Burrison looks extra warm behind his wiry thicket of beard. Still, he takes the party up another notch with something no self-respecting Southern blues/rock band’s set should be without: a song about whiskey.
A throwback to 2015’s Glory Bound, the anthemic ‘Blame It on the Whiskey’ succeeds in coaxing the last few crowd members who’ve been clinging to the safety of the dancefloor’s perimeter to venture into its centre, and Henry James looms over the front row for another blistering slide solo. He’s one of those guitarists that doesn’t appear to need to look at his hands ever, and his talents deserve far more praise than they’ve yet received.
There’s no let up in pace for the rest of the set as the band rattles through songs like ‘Waiting For Your Man’, ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ and ‘Old Friend’ – each with longer and more energetic improvised solo sections than the last. ‘What a great way to start off our UK run – especially on a fuckin’ boat!’ shouts Burrison, before imploring the crowd, once again, to sing and dance along to the riotous set closer, ‘Shine A Light on Me Brother’.
Out there in the real world it might have been a Monday evening, but for the duration of Robert Jon & The Wreck’s storming live set aboard the good ship Thekla, it’s been Friday night through and through. Few bands possess such transformative powers as this.
Robert Jon & The Wreck’s UK tour continues throughout May with tickets available HERE