It was ten years ago to the very week that Joe Bonamassa took the biggest chance yet of a promising career and played the Royal Albert Hall. As he recounted from the stage on this evening, it proved to be a career defining experience, and his regular returns there mean that one of his heroes Eric Clapton is no longer the only legendary guitarist associated with the venue.
This was the second of a three night residency and after an intro tape climaxed with an announcement of ‘tonight, Muddy Waters’, his ‘Tiger in Your Tank’ had a light, almost jazzy swing. The horn section and a pair of female backing singers were prominent until the guitarist – in his trademark look of smart suit and slicked back hair that made its debut at that 2009 show- took the song up to another level.
Photo: Andy Nathan
As he is well known for varying and theming his sets, I did wonder if this was to be a pure blues night. However things were rocked up a notch with ‘King Bee Shakedown’, and ‘Evil Mama’, the first in a series of four successive numbers from most recent album ‘Redemption’.
The latter featured some great musicianship, notably a piano solo from keyboardist Reese Winans, a man with a CV as long as your arm, then there was an audible gasp of expectation as Joe stepped forward to unleash his solo, pulling those rather jagged stage poses.
Photo: Andy Nathan
The biggest criticism of the blues from more casual fans (me included) is that it can sound a little samey but Joe sidestepped this danger by switching between a variety of styles with nearly every song, assisted by a new guitar for each. ‘Just Cause You Can Don’t Mean You Should’ had a BB King-type feel, followed by ‘Self-Inflicted Wounds’, a slower blues with Jenny MacRae supplying some of the vocals.
This perfectionism and attention to detail shines through, and his band were equally well-drilled and precise. It is often overlooked that he is a fine vocalist and the songs are more than just an afterthought, but they take off into another dimension in his fingers.
The middle of the set saw him at his best- the lengthy ‘This Train’ had a southern feel and included solos from Reese, sax player Paulie Serra and Joe; ‘Blues of Desperation’ featured multiple changes of pace and a very fine slide guitar solo and ‘No Good Place for the Lonely’ featured perhaps his most jaw dropping solo of the whole set. The biggest cheer of the night greeted the hauntingly quiet intro from Joe and Reese into ‘Sloe Gin’, which has long been established as his signature epic.
The one thing that made me a little uneasy was the lack of interaction with the crowd. Other than shout outs for bandmates, it was a full hour and a quarter before he addressed us – though his speech was gracious and dryly humorous, notably with a tale of serving instant coffee out of Royal Albert Hall mugs.
No-one expects Graham Norton-style repartee from him but greater engagement with an audience that pay some of the most premium prices in the business would not go amiss and personally I would have enjoyed hearing him explain the context and inspiration around his choice of songs.
Photo: Andy Nathan
After some great ensemble playing from his band on ‘Well Well’, Joe then shared the stage with another guitarist, Kirk Fletcher, on a cover of BB King’s ‘Boogie Woogie Woman’, generously allowing him the first solo, but the British blues rock pioneers remain his biggest inspiration and so he finished the set by going back to basics and dispensing with the horn section, backing singers and even, for a period, Reese, leaving he, Michael Rhodes and Anton Fig to form a deluxe power trio.
‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ turned into a sprawling epic at the end of which he motioned for the crowd (mainly older, but with a fair sprinkling of younger fans, often lad with Dad) to take to their feet as it segued into the swaggering riff of ‘How Many More Times’. There was substantial improvisation and changes of pace, including a snatch of Free’s ‘The Hunter’ before returning to the main riff, and the pair of songs inextricably associated with Zeppelin clocked in at a full 25 minutes.
Photo: Andy Nathan
In contrast for the encore he came on stage solo, playing an acoustic for what I think was the only time in the evening. He whipped up quite a rocky storm on ‘Woke Up Dreaming’ though I did feel the instrumental coda outstayed its welcome. Completing a 2 ¼ hour set, the band then returned for another old favourite from earlier days in ‘Mountain Time’ which reminded me of the Allmans or Marshall Tucker Band, with a belated but extremely lyrical guitar solo.
Ten years on from his bow in this most august of venues, Joe Bonamassa is no longer the hotshot new kid but a musician at the very peak of his game. This gig bore his hallmark stamp of perfectionism and showed him to be master of his chosen craft.
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by John Hayhurst (except where indicated)
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