Chris Rea “The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes Tour 2008”
24th March 2008
The stage set was a guitar collectors’ wet dream … twenty vintage guitars strung up across the backcloth, and a violin bass and guitar propped up at the front. Were they all Hofners? I couldn’t judge because Hofner made so many look alikes in the sixties. The tickets said 7.30, which meant a predictable notice on arrival that the show would start at 8 pm and finish at 9.45. No theatre play in the country has ever done this. 90% of rock shows do.
Anyway, Chris Rea’s beautifully produced new album is a 3 CD set plus two ten inch records, and purports to tell the story of a band who started off as late 50s instrumental group “The Delmonts” and evolved into earthy 60s R&B band “The Hofner Bluenotes.” The concept on the album is only partially successful. The Delmonts who fill CD1 and both ten inch records are a masterly pastiche of instrumental groups like The Shadows and The Ventures. It’s superbly realized and no one has played this sort of stuff in years. Then you go on to the Hofner Bluenotes who sound just like … well, just like Chris Rea. The pastiche is invisible.
Putting that into the live show means that the show opens as The Delmonts (as a large logo tells us) and remains The Delmonts for six instrumentals. The last record played through the sound system before they started was “Apache” … a courageous move when you’re about to imitate The Shadows, but The Delmonts are the sound of The Shadows with modern equipment, and sure enough they sound louder, richer and fuller immediately. The spotlight is on the guy playing lead guitar for the first four numbers, and it’s not Chris Rea, who’s in semi darkness playing rhythm. Then Chris takes over lead for the last two, which are louder and introduce a bluesier edge. I felt this was part of a story as The Delmonts evolve into the Bluenotes (and the guitarists switch roles). I was sitting way back, centrally placed, just below what used to be called the limelight boxes. The last time I saw a band performing this sort of material was from much the same distance and angle when I was doing lights on The Shadows at the now-demolished Winter Gardens, just along the road from the BIC. And that was forty years ago. But they would never have had the sound quality of The Delmonts.
Then the logo is lifted and replaced with a Hofner Bluenotes logo, and their “set” is started off by Chris Rea on harmonica. The concept made far more sense live than on record, because the band were heavier and louder and the guitar parts longer. However, if you’re going for a sixties R&B feel, no sixties band had the drums heavily amplified and resonating stereophonically around the hall. The Bluenotes “set” lasts a good third or more of the show, featuring stuff from the new album, except for a short excursion with Rea on banjo into his hit “Josephine”. It’s new to many in the audience so it’s a brave move to take us two thirds through the evening with all new material. As I said, it sounded better live, and The Shadow of A Fool with its anti-war message got illustrated with pictures of Tony Blair (oddly on a widescreen TV at the side, which had been used to show the titles of the Delmonts numbers).
The third section saw the logos disappear so I guess at that point we were simply watching “Chris Rea”. Rea still has his full vocal power, and as a guitarist he’s not simply accomplished, but also always melodic, exciting and interesting. Probably because his singing ability is so prominent, he never seems to get rated with Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler as a guitarist, but to me he’s definitely as good. And a better singer than either.
My favourite, Stainsby Girls got a full ten minute treatment, followed by a similar length The Road to Hell to close the main set. The encores were On The Beach and Let’s Dance, then at exactly 9.45 he was finished. The hall stayed dark, the stage stayed lit so people stomped and whistled for 5 or 6 minutes when disappointingly the house lights went on. For me, no Steel River. I was desperate to hear it, but it’s like seeing The Band in the 90s … no The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. It happens as the catalogue grows, and Steel River would sound lacking without the female backing singers. In fact, none of the band sang backing vocals to anything all evening.
A note on the current ticket touts situation. The stalls, sold out weeks ago, had empty spaces in twos and threes. This is happening so often at sold out gigs where the touts grab the tickets and fail to get their 300% mark up on eBay. It’s a great shame. Another note is the merchandising wasn’t as successful as it could have been. T-shirts at £22 ($45)? A DVD at £20? The Hofner Bluenotes box at £40? Noticeably, Asia a couple of weeks earlier were doing far better business with lots of live CDs on sale at far more reasonable prices and sensible T-shirt prices.