There aren’t many more unsuspecting rock-stars than Chris Rea. Cut from the same melancholic cloth as Mark Knopfler, the Middlesborough-born-and-bred musician was a lugubrious MOR presence on the charts a quarter-century ago – but a brush with mortality at the turn of the millennium has since spurred a creative regression of sorts to the blues music that inspired him when starting out.
Dropping by the Harrogate International Centre behind the eighth album of this resurgent reinvention, Road Songs for Lovers, the veteran guitarist cuts a muted, workmanlike figure – and lets his fingers on the fretboard do the talking instead, for better and worse.
Rea has always had his roots set down in the Mississippi Delta to some extent, and on record, his wholehearted embrace is markedly gritty, shorn of the slick, beefy sound that coloured his prime commercial years. Live though, it is more of a compromise between the two; backed by a metronomic, jazz-coloured five-piece band, he hews to a pop-rock backing over which he drapes his distinctive slide melodies and improvisations.
Several of his newer compositions benefit from these arrangements; The Last Open Road is a horn-splashed boogie-woogie stomp whilst Stony Road rides in on its swampy shuffle with a grizzled, murky mood. They sit well with the tauter takes on classic cuts; the soft-rock gems of Julia and Looking for the Summer are smart, lithe numbers possessed of a foot-tapping joy underneath his husky vocals, rugged and languorous.
It’s the extended passages of soloing that muddy the waters though. Rea is a gifted player, no doubt about it – but flights of fancy across Money and ’Til the Morning Sun Shines on My Love and Me are relatively leaden despite their technical prowess, adding little to or complimenting the songcraft. They outstay their welcome, more often than not; a stripped-down piano version of Stainsby Girls is relatively affecting, until it is followed by a coda almost singularly given over to scratchy, cluttered six-string vamping.
The Road to Hell, in both parts, brings a tighter, smokier atmosphere back to proceedings, and On the Beach strikes a twisty calypso-jazz groove well; but by the time the mostly older crowd are finally coaxed to their feet for a rollicking rendition of Let’s Dance, Rea’s diversion into instrumental longueurs has detracted from his otherwise immaculate skills.
Perhaps next time, the main road would be more pleasing rather than the scenic route.