Gig review: JOE BONAMASSA – Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 April 2017

 JOE BONAMASSA - Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 April 2017

The hardest working blues rocker in the business was returning to the iconic RAH for the first time since 2014, in support of last year’s ‘Blues of Desperation’ album.

He had elected for a very basic stage set up. One simple rectangular frame of lights was suspended immediately overhead and a few strobes around the edges. The band ambled out in a low key fashion against a steam locomotive backing tape. ‘All aboard!’ hissed the PA. There was no backdrop, no visual effects or fireworks and flamethrowers. The only incendiary action came from Bonamassa’s burning fingers on the frets.

‘This Train’ kicked off proceedings and featured an extended instrumental passage, the first of many, served up to a genteel, seated front row of politely nodding heads and tapping feet. A little surreal.

Such reservation didn’t last too long. By the time Bonamassa had wrung out the taut set-piece solo at the end of ‘No Good Place For The Lonely’ teetering on the lip of the stage, the stalls were provoked into a more animated reaction. Whoops, even.

 JOE BONAMASSA - Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 April 2017

This upstate New Yorker is massively respectful of his blues rock heritage. Most of his sets include a sprinkling of well-chosen covers. On this occasion, some had survived from his 2016 tour in celebration of British blues greats. The first was an excellent reworking of Clapton’s ‘Mainline Florida’ that cooked up a rollicking groove, aided by a second axe wielded by the tour guitar-tech guy and fizzed along on a dirty, rumbling bass and keyboard mix.

Tonight’s band included a top notch sax and trumpet combo that really packed a punch. ‘Mountain Climbing’ benefitted from some brass blasts not present on the studio version that gave the main riff a sharper, spikier edge.  A different dynamic.

On the other side of the drummer, two female backing singers added some uplifting swing and depth to the material. ‘Blues of Desperation’ in particular, revealed itself as a multi layered and complex thing of beauty. The track initially conjured up atmospheric and tender moments only hinted at on the album track before unleashing muscular and powerful slices of lead guitar. Brilliant.

Bonamassa’s sharp suit, slick hair and showbiz shaded eyes belie the passion and feeling he coaxes from his instrument. Nobody chucks such a high-spec ceramic kitchen sink at every solo like this guy. Take the at once uplifting and despairing ‘How Deep This River Runs’. He means every plaintive, gutteral, pure, sweet, brutal note he picked out.

 JOE BONAMASSA - Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 April 2017

‘Boogie With Stu’ was another great cover. The Led Zep jam was a frivolous and fluffy mood changer in comparison to the weighty material that preceded it. Anton Fig on drums had a ball with some infectious rhythms and found a great interchange with the masterly Reece Wynans on keyboards. There was also a great sax solo from Paulie Cerra.

All the while, the backing singers were lifting the mood and cranking out appropriately choreographed moves: front crawl for ‘How Deep This River Runs’, pistons for ‘This Train’ and jives for ‘Boogie With Stu’.  Never a dull moment.

‘Never Make Your Move Too Soon’ followed and was just a bit swamped with brass in an attempt to create a Stax/Motown feel. Then ‘Angel Of Mercy’ gave way to a drum solo and the momentum of the gig was temporarily stalled.

At least the band didn’t depart and leave Figg to his devices. Maybe they were admiring his red velvet trousers that almost perfectly matched the curtain around the RAH’s famous organ. Speaking of sartorial elegance, one could not help but notice how closely Joe’s tan brogues complemented his two-tone natural finish Flying V. Attention to detail is everything.

After the drum set piece, Bonamassa’s respect showed its face again when he deliberately removed his shades to talk to the audience. He introduced the band and thanked everyone for coming out. This was his only proper chat proper with the crowd throughout the entire 2¼ hour performance.

 JOE BONAMASSA - Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 April 2017

Even the weaker songs had their moments. ‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’ wouldn’t be everyone’s stand out track from 2014’s ‘Different Shades of Blue’. And yet Bonamassa’s control of pace and drama during a pianissimo single note picking section had the audience rapt. He was again teasing the audience from the front of the podium before crashing back into the signature riff with all the surprise and power of a snap General Election call.

‘Dust Bowl’ was breathtaking. Introduced by a muted trumpet and with subtle lighting playing with Joe’s tremulous guitar, the RAH could have been transformed into a back street cinema with flickering Film Noir projected onto the galleries. The most impassioned vocal of the night, too, augmented by the class of the backing singers.

The gig wound up with a few more covers. ‘Little Girl’ was an R ‘n’ B stomp with real bite in the riff.  Eric Clapton’s ‘Pretending’ was less successful, sounding a little flabby and tired.

However, the re-interpretation of Led Zep’s ‘How Many More Times’ was anything but. Taking on this track was a bold and risky choice.  For instance, you couldn’t argue that Bonamassa really nailed the vocal. But he certainly smashed the psychedelic opening, the testosterone growl of the riff, and the searing solos. Rawness isn’t something you’d normally associate with Bonamassa, but that’s what we got here. Wynan’s lush Hammond organ took centre stage during the spooky middle section.

 JOE BONAMASSA - Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 April 2017

The band came back for ‘Hummingbird, a BB King track set up for a series of grandstanding solos, if ever there was one. Bonamassa did not disappoint. By this time the audience was on its feet. Any reticence during the earlier part of the show was long gone. The gig ended with spiralling solos, big brass sweeps, soaring backing vocals, pumping bass and swirling Hammond organ. The full-fat, high cholesterol Bonamassa experience in 3D. A performer at the peak of his powers.  Long may it continue.

Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Laurence Harvey

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