British rockers Reef make a revelatory return

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

The thriving British music scene of the mid-1990s was awash with techno, Britpop and newer genres like jungle and trip-hop. When Reef burst onto the scene, the group’s heavier style of rock must have felt like an actual oasis to some listeners.

The band’s debut album, “Replenish,” came out in 1995 and tours with acts such as Soundgarden and the Rolling Stones followed, in part due to the success of breakthrough single “Place Your Hands” in 1996. With the release of the album “Glow” the following year, the band was thrust firmly into the spotlight.

Then, almost as quickly as the band rose to success, it came to an end: After headlining the Falmouth Regatta Week in August 2003, Reef split.

A few gigs and a few lineup changes later — of the original four members only singer Gary Stringer and bassist Jack Bessant remain — Reef is back with its fifth album, and first in 18 years, “Revelation.”

For Jesse Wood, 41, the band’s new guitarist — and yes, the son of legendary Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood — joining Reef was something of a dream come true.

“I was playing with a version of Faces with Mick Hucknall on vocals when I was asked by Dom Greensmith (Reef’s former drummer) to audition for Reef,” Wood says via telephone from Ibiza, Spain. “I had been a fan since the ’90s and they were part of my formative years as a teenager. At the audition, we played through a few songs and then started to jam. We sort of ended up writing a song in the jam and I think that went down really well with the guys. I don’t think any of the others (auditioning) had jammed, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m up for that.'”

Stepping into any band is a difficult task, especially when taking over from as precocious a guitarist as Kenwyn House (now playing with his new band Goldray). But Wood found the process was a relatively smooth one.

“Of course it’ll always be challenging, because you want to do your best, and I wanted to emulate (House) as best I could, but there’s only so far you can do that because you are you, and not them,” he says. “When we play live, the band are happy for me to do my own thing in the solos. They’re very encouraging and let me be me.”

Wood was instrumental in writing “Revelation” and has brought his own sound to the group. Though he admits to being “less technical” than his predecessor, there is power in simplicity, and Wood’s riffs frequently punch above their weight.

The record is Reef’s most diverse to date and runs the full gamut of genres, from an uptempo screamer of a title track (spot the AC/DC influence) to the country crooning of “My Sweet Love,” a duet between Stringer and Sheryl Crow (a collaboration that came about through longtime Reef producer George Drakoulias and was directed by video link between London and Los Angeles). The band steps boldly into gospel territory with a cover of “How I Got Over,” and frequently brings back the choir, most notably in closing track “Like a Ship (Without a Sail).”

“George was very involved in the songwriting, and he was a big influence on us using quite a varied sound on our album,” Wood says. “He brought that to the band back in the ’90s with ‘Glow,’ and ‘Place Your Hands’ also has a gospel choir on it. At first, with songs like ‘How I Got Over’ we weren’t sure whether it was going to work, but it all came together magically and I think the end product really does work.”

Many of the songs feel slightly pastiche, and you do get the sense that in Reef’s 15-year hiatus the band has done more listening than playing (or in the case of bassist Bessant, growing a magnificent beard). At times the listener is left grasping for the names of other bands — Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Deep Purple — but it is an undeniably energetic album, something that Wood hopes comes across at its pair of Japan gigs.

“We have a really great time on stage. We love what we’re doing and I think that vibrates out into whoever’s there in the audience,” he says. “We’re a good, loud rock band.”

Reef plays Fanj Twice in Osaka on Sept. 5 and Duo Music Exchange in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 6. Both shows start at 7:30 p.m. and tickets cost ¥6,800 in advance. For more information, visit www.reeftheband.com.