There can’t really be any question over whether Chris Rea is cool. He’s not, and never will be. A glance around his gigs is testament to that, with an almost uniformly middle-aged audience there to watch and have a bit of a boogie. But then you listen to the music he’s made since recovering from pancreatitis and wonder what if he’d been 21 when he recorded Dancing Down The Stony Road, instead of 51. Then, he would probably be considered to be pretty cool.
But, whatever, with a packed-out Apollo hanging on his every guitar lick, Rea doesn’t need cool or any of the trappings that come with that label. He’s been uncool, he’s been popular and he’s been on Christmas adverts every year since the late 80s, and he’s spent the last decade doing exactly whatever he wants to do, making the best music of his career at the same time. Despite ‘retiring’ a few years ago, this tour, to promote his latest album Santo Spirito Blues, finds him in stunning form.
I say that the tour is to promote the new album, but you would hardly know, given the apparent lack of any merchandise and that he only plays one song from it in the whole set, and even then it’s a re-recording of a song from 1999. But The Last Open Road is a perfect example of the direction Rea’s career took after it was originally released on the diabolical Road To Hell: Part 2 album, with the new version and the one that opens this gig replacing the ill-advised mess of production on the original with searing blues guitar and pounding bass and drums.
As a statement of intent, it’s perfect, and sets the tone for an evening of blistering blues guitar. Both his style of playing that and his gravel voice have always been better suited to this kind of music than the middle of the road stuff most people still associate him with, and with plenty of tracks from the 16-disc Blue Guitars collection in the setlist, he gets plenty of chances to show off his chops. Where The Blues Come From is another early highlight, while Stony Road is possibly the pinnacle of his blues virtuosity, all the while managing to avoid any hint of self-indulgence.
Unlike the last show I saw him play, which was the gimmicky Return Of The Hofner Blue Notes tour, this setlist is designed to blend the old and new together to make a wonderful night’s entertainment, and classics like Josephine, Looking For The Summer, Road To Hell and Stainsby Girls all go down well, particularly the driving crescendos of the latter. The encore is perhaps a little muted by comparison, with a chilled On The Beach, Let’s Dance and It’s All Gone making for a nice, rather than mind-blowing finale. But he’d done more than enough by then. Chris Rea will never be cool, but that doesn’t make his music or his shows any less impressive, and you’re missing out if you are ignoring either these days.