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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Robert Jon & The Wreck at Thekla, Bristol

Robert Jon & The Wreck have been mixing a wonderful cocktail of Southern Rock and California Americana since 2011. The band sculpts a return to traditional rock n’ roll and manage its fading roads with stirring tunes and aggressive playing but unlike some bands of the alt-country vein that are similar to them – they have the soul of the genre properly distilled.

The fact that Robert Jon Burrison and his crew could draw a capacity crowd on a Monday night at the Thekla in Bristol says a lot about the pulling power of good time Blues Rock. The Wreck are a tight well drilled band who look to be used to larger halls than the hold of the Thekla. The iconic Bristol venue on a ship may have a stage the size of a postage stamp, but they owned it.

With Southern Rock credentials firmly embellished, they also brought a confidence and a coolness to try something new, mix up the set, and change the mood.

The versatile sound spans the whole spectrum of the roots/rock arena. And with a songbook full of radio-playlisted singles and sing-along anthems, the audience was in their element from the opening notes of “Pain No More” at the top of the show. After a typically low-key arrival on-stage, it roared out of the PA, with fat riffs, distorted slide and a furious lead break.

If you love those Southern Fried guitars with a side of slide and some burning organ then this will get those feet moving and that head nodding. It’s just what the band does best – a great song with the minimum of fuss.

The infectious melodies of tracks like “Do You Remember” and “Tired of Drinking Alone” stay with you for days. Couple that with the band’s incendiary twin-part guitar harmonies and frontman Robert Jon Burrison’s incredible soulful voice, and the group are a force to be reckoned with.

The band’s chemistry was undeniable as they effortlessly moved through their setlist, a mix of old favourites and tracks from their new album.

The combination of Robert Jon Burrison (lead vocals, guitar), Andrew Espantman (drums), Henry James Schneekluth (lead guitar), Warren Murrel (bass) and the mercurial Jake Abernathie (keyboards) have already produced some brilliant records but the live experience is even more thrilling.

‘Who Can You Love’ has that wonderfully evocative opening with lilting guitar that just takes you to another place before the vocals kick in honey smooth and we build to a countrified chorus that just drifts like The Eagles grew up a little further South. It’s a wonderful song that melds acoustic and electric guitars to produce a thing of wonder.

In amongst the early tracks, ‘Do You Remember’ stood out as a return to the more typically soulful, southern rock that characterises much of their sound. It is a lovely track, with Burrison and James drawing inevitable references to the Allman Brothers twin lead guitar melodies.

Whilst we had been treated to a few excellent instrumental passages already, it was on ‘Ride into the Light’ where the band really stretched out. James coming over stage left to trade some high quality slide guitar with Abernathie’s organ and keys, and who found some hints of The Doors in the extended passages.

‘High Time’ from the band’s eponymous 2018 release, brought a bit of psychedelia on the intro, before Andrew Espantman on drums and Warren Murrel on bass shot the track through with funky rhythm vibes.

By contrast ‘Who Can You Love’ was a much more gentle, country-influenced new song, setting the scene nicely for the brilliant ‘Oh Miss Carolina’ a real crowd-pleasing, sing-a-long moment. Burrison screwing up his face with emotion on the love-lost, bitter chorus, and James wringing out moving bursts of lead guitar. A real highlight.

Each member the band are virtuosos in their own right. And they each took their moment in the spotlight throughout the set. Lead guitarist Henry James is one of the most gifted guitarists on the rock scene right now. The audience's jaws dropped every time Henry stepped up to the edge of the stage and unleashed his ferocious fretwork during countless solos.

Of course, with a new studio album in tow, the band included tracks from their latest release including, “Bring Me Back Home Again”, “Don't Look Down” and the title track, “Ride Into The Light”.

One of the group’s radio hits, “Oh Miss Carolina”, featured in the latter stages of the show and got a thunderous response from the crowd. Whilst the incredible chemistry and incendiary playing of the group shone through during main set closer, “Cold Night” it was turned up another notch with the wonderful final encore number ‘Shine a Light On Me Brother’.

There was a sense the gig was approaching its climax and ‘Cold Night’ was unleashed on the crowd in its now anticipated long-form version, with an instrumental mini-opera so far removed from its 2015 version on ‘Glory Bound’ as to be unrecognisable. This is not so much a trademark rendition as a right of passage.

This is Robert Jon and the Wreck’s ‘Freebird’ moment - the twists, turns, pace changes and drama comparable with that Lynyrd Skynyrd track. James and Abernathie are brilliant together, bouncing off each other in waves of freestyle jamming. James’s solos become ever more breakneck and adrenaline fuelled until Burrison comes back in with the chorus and the breathless track is brought to a frantic finish.

With each return visit, Robert Jon and the Wreck continue to build momentum. And just like the sentiment of the last song of the evening – they continue to shine on, and their star is getting brighter. If you ever have the chance to see them live, do not hesitate as it’s a night you won’t soon forget.

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