Having spent the best part of a year planning this four-gig, four-set and four-band career retrospective, Joe Bonamassa was entitled to look a little weary after completing his London residency, performed to a grand total of 14,000 people.
Given tonight’s show was also being filmed, he wisely opted for an acoustic meets ‘world’ music opening set, before working his way up through a heavy duty rock-blues show of the highest order.
Before the end of the encore Joe commented, ‘I’ve learnt something about myself tonight’; and you suspect he could have been talking about his focus and staying power, as much as his ability to front two bands in one night.
Bonamassa is a barometer of just how far blues rock artists can go. He’s broken through the glass ceiling hampering the genre, while remaining fiercely independent. He’s set new standards with impeccable playing, carefully chosen material, a cast of top musicians and an intuitive producer. His audience has grown exponentially and internationally, and judging by tonight, he’s even copped some of Clapton’s Albert Hall crowd.
Joe’s intrinsic link with Brit blues was further cemented by his use of a variety of axes previously owned by Rory Gallagher, (‘Sloe Gin’ and ‘John Henry’), Peter Green and Gary Moore (‘Midnight Blues’), and Bernie Marsden (‘Just Got Paid’).
The two set show was a triumph of imagination and versatility over volume, with 50 songs being cut to 18 from 10 albums, as he started with his current acoustic album line-up.
Surrounded by six acoustic guitars and illuminated by six huge spotlights, he moved from a solo opening on ‘Palm Trees Helicopters and Gasoline’, to join his multi instrumental accompanists on a fine cover John Martyn’s ‘Jelly Roll’, complete with a Lenny Castro spoons solo.
He cleverly changed mood and instrumental emphasis on the eastern influenced ‘Black Lung Heartache’ and the wistful ‘Around The Bend’ on a lovely blend of fiddle harmonium, nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle) and acoustic.
A heavy riff driven, steam train intro powered ‘Slow Train’ and the opening tremolo motif and uplifting groove of ‘Dust Bowl’ immediately connected with the crowd. But such was the surging power of the rhythm section that the resulting wall of sound nearly engulfed Joe’s vocals – the same happened later on the anthemic ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’ – though his vibrato eventually soared into the night and redressed the balance.
The show was so well paced and cleverly structured that in the blink of an eye and a Howlin’ Wolf sample, he’d got himself a new rhythm section. Michael Rhodes’ focussed, straight ahead bass style locked in with Anton Fig’s funky drumming to somehow reverse the roles of their predecessors.
The break-down section of ‘Who’s Been Talking’ unlocked the most delicate of dynamics, while Fig’s expansive kit work shaped ‘Happier Times’ as Joe added precise rich toned notes.
A sledge hammer version of ‘John Henry’ featuring Joe on Rory’s ’61 strat, provided the pivotal moment of the night. Joe added some atmospheric theremin soundscapes and a definitive solo, either side of an extended Hammond filled solo, with a harmonic filled finale that brought the crowd to its feet.
The delicate volume swells of ‘Django’ and the shimmering guitar of ‘Mountain Time’ – beautifully anchored by Carmine Rojas’ resonant bass notes – led to a thunderous crescendo, equally matched by the audience’s response.
A two song encore comprised a surprisingly muted ‘Sloe Gin’ and a contrastingly bombastic fusion of ZZ Top and Zeppelin on ‘Just Got Paid’. The fact he sat down at the end of the show confirmed he’d worked hard for corn.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Christie Goodwin
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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