Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for… it's The Return of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes! Wait a minute, isn't that Chris Rea standing in the middle playing guitar and singing in a voice that sounds like a well used ashtray? Yes, it is, and The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes is the name given to a new(ish) band that Rea has put together to present his latest take on the music that has inspired him to become the artist he is today.
The more attentive of you may have spotted that the last Chris Rea tour was touted as exactly that, the last Chris Rea tour, and was the vehicle for an unprecedented live album that centred around his 11 CD magnum opus 'Blue Guitars' together with a selection of Rea classics. In the sleeve notes, Chris stated that it would be the last tour he would do as 'Chris Rea', and that his next project would involve a new band, with a new name in which he would be the singer and one of the guitarists. At the time, the band was to be called The Fireflies, and the next time Rea would be seen in public would be as a member, playing his music written for the band.
What began life as The Fireflies was soon to turn into something else altogether. Band members came and went, ideas formed and tried and either dumped or expanded on, but what became apparent was that The Fireflies was not the right shop front for what was actually being created, and what was required was actually two bands. Ever ambitious and determined to be true to his musical roots, Rea wanted to present his take on two eras of music that formed a central part of his development - the early heroes of the electric guitar from the early 1960s such as instrumental bands The Ventures and The Shadows, mixed with a dose of 60s cool and manifest as The Delmonts!, and a more serious homage to the blues heroes of the late 60s and early 70s, with BB King and Peter Green amongst the familiar references, and coming to life as The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes. The recorded result is something special to behold and extremely desirable, coming in the form of another 'earbook' like Blue Guitars and containing 3 CD's packaged within a sumptuous book full of 60s iconography. The really authentic touch however is the inclusion of a 12" heavy vinyl version of each of the CDs, bringing back all the nostalgia of owning vinyl albums that the digital generation has so effectively diluted.
But how to approach this as a live event? The answer is actually quite simple - five excellent musicians, a series of backdrops and some appropriate audio techniques. Standing in front of a shimmering silver backdrop that looks like it's been pilfered from the Southend Gaumont circa 1961, The Delmonts! open the show with nine instrumental numbers, featuring Robert Ahwai on lead guitar with all the requisite twanginess expected of the genre. It's forty minutes of pure fun, but it is soon the turn of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes, heralded by the disappearance of the silver curtain and an illuminated sign appearing from the blackness. The sound of Rea's harmonica a crunchy blues riff and that voice are more certain indicators that we're moving on into familiar territory, and The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes take us through some of the new material along with choice pieces from Blue Guitars and Dancing Down The Stony Road. Stainsby Girls is the point where we cross the line to classic Chris Rea. So three shows in one really, and the audiences certainly seem to appreciate that they get their money's worth.
As for the audio, the challenge is to present each section faithfully. The Delmonts!, if we were to be completely true to the time, should sound pretty awful, as live sound technology was all but non-existent in the early 60s. Artists relied on underpowered guitar amps and hopelessly inadequate cinema systems to get themselves heard. It wouldn't be appropriate or acceptable in this day and age however to present a show sounding that bad, and it's more about employing techniques and equipment that emulate the sounds of the time to give a feel of authenticity. RG's endorsement of Digidesign Venue consoles makes this more than possible, as the vast range of plug-ins available covers everything from vintage compressors and spring reverbs to the very best of modern signal processing technology, all faithfully reproduced down to the finest control detail. The sound of this show is all about fine detail - with the quality of input from the band being as high as any engineer could wish for, the opportunity to creatively employ the resources available to shape the sound to the era is both challenging and exciting. Critical listening and fine tuning of the Synco W8LC line array goes a long way to forming the basis of getting a great, but genuine sound. Some mic techniques that would horrify many rock 'n' roll engineers go some way to generating an open sound, and for The Delmonts! set, copious use of spring reverb is essential. The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes require a tighter, drier sound, where simulated tape compression plays a part, and the classic Chris Rea demands the fidelity and power expected from some of the defining music of its time.
The 2008 tour covers most of Europe, taking in The Balkans, Baltic states and Russia, and then into the UK where the highlights are sure to be The Royal Albert Hall, two nights in Newcastle and two nights in Birmingham Symphony Hall. It's a long haul, but whatever he might say at the time, it's unlikely that Rea is about to stop touring just yet. His creativity just won't let him, and with some of the ideas that have been floating around, just about anything is possible!