Album review: JOE BONAMASSA – Live At The Greek Theatre

JOE BONAMASSA – Live At The Greek Theatre

Provogue  [Release date 23.10.16] CD/DVD/Bluray

The key element in Joe Bonamassa’s ‘Live at the Greek Theatre’ DVD/CD release is his integral role in ‘blues heritage’ music, as reflected in the DVD’s strap line ‘Keeping The Blues Alive’.

The broad based concept provides the essential context for the ‘historical music’ of the three King’s, – B.B., Albert and Freddie -  as Joe and The Three King’s Blues Band successfully recycle old wine in new bottles

There are several familiar signifiers at play here, from the opening ‘fishbowl’ archive footage of the young Bonamassa as a teen, to his current impeccable musical standards as he interprets a classic back catalogue, captured by the same film production crew to be found on his previous live efforts.

Then there’s also the array of Joe’s guitars that reflect the three King’s contrasting guitar styles – B.B.’s sweet melodic phrasing, Albert’s big note bends and Freddie aggression – and he’s filmed in the latest of a series of international high profile concert venues.

The end result provides plenty of musical highlights, albeit on a project that partly mirrors much of what Eric Clapton has done before. It’s music that is also self evidently marketed at the same demographic niche that EC drew to the blues. So yes, Joe is keeping the blues alive, but arguably within an existing bubble.

That said, such is the imperative build and unrelenting intensity of the show that even the most sceptical viewer will surely sit back and quietly mouth their admiration.

And if there’s no room for a handful of Freddie King’s celebrated instrumentals such as ‘San-Ho-Zay’ , then the highlights provide a vibrant cross section of the three King’s blues dynasty.

When you’ve released some 15 solo albums in 13 years, you probably have to search that little bit harder for your ideas and inspiration. And having found the perfect context for his mission of keeping the blues alive,  Bonamassa sets himself the difficult task of injecting familiar covers with enough vim and vigour to make them both exciting and relevant.

The 2016 model of Joe Bonamassa represents a barometer of just how far blues can go in the crossover market, and if ‘Live At The Greek Theatre’ has few pretensions to gaining a younger listening audience, it’s a timely reminder of just how influential B.B., Albert and Freddie King continue to be.

Joe Bonamassa has built his career on startling virtuosity and musical diversity within the blues genre and this album explores the same portals that led all three King’s to the very same crossover blues market that Joe now dominates.

The material is well chosen with the most obvious big hitters saved to the last. There’s no doubting Joe’s fire, intensity and commitment to the material as evidenced by the drum-tight arrangements.  The band hits its stride early on with ‘Lonesome Whistle Blues’ , which features his cool licks and expressive vocals over a trio of bv’s on a bouncing shuffle.

He snappily reworks Freddie’s 1962 Federal single , ‘Sittin’ On The Boat Dock’ with pumping horns, while the ensemble slips into the coolest stop-time groove on Freddie’s ‘Love Her With A Feeling’.

Any semblance of a box ticking exercise is ripped asunder when he switches to Flying V for Albert King’s horn-led ‘I’ll Play the Blues For You’ . It’s a song full of space, time, feel and Joe’s warmest vocal, as both Kirk Fletcher and Rees Wynans enjoy the freedom to solo.

There’s a similar funky undertow to Albert’s ‘Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’, which features another impressive vocal from Joe on a song topped by his concise, piercing notes over a cool groove.  And the band further extends the funky feel on a marvellous version of Albert’s ‘Cadillac Assembly Line’.

If both the muscular ‘Pretty Woman’ and the swinging ‘Let The Good Time Roll’ have arguably been covered too many times to inject real spark, the balance is redressed on the piano-led, gospel inflected ‘Nobody Loves Me But My Mother’ .

Everything coalesces seamlessly, particularly on the magical opening interplay by Bonamassa and Wynans.  A few audience whistles aside, there’s almost total silence in the auditorium as Joe’s sustained notes and ascending solo cuts through the pumping horns and drummer Anton Fig’s ebullient phrasing to connect with BB spirit, on a song that sounds like musical message from the grave.

To reach such an emotive high in a big band set up, speaks volumes for Bonamassa’s ability to get inside the music he plays.

He revisits the same levels of intensity on B.B.’s ‘Hummingbird’, which he imbues with sufficient dynamics and tension to give himself the platform to deliver the kind of richly toned solo that embodies what blues guitar playing should be about. His lead vocals and harmony singing on this track also elevates him to another career high.

They always tell you to save your best for last, and by the time of ‘The Trill Is Gone’ , Joe and his band have arguably superseded their aims and objectives by making the viewer/listener feel as if they in the front row of an intimate club date rather than a vacuous arena.

Complete with bonus DVD features including an interview with Joe’s parents that tops and tails the opening footage of the teen guitar protégé, ‘Live At The Greek Theatre’ is another impressive chapter in Bonamassa’s career.

The blues heritage resides in the very best hands. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00

Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 20 March 2022 at 21:00 GMT (16:00 EST). Josh’s next session is Sunday 22 May.

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David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 GMT, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 8 May 2022.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 GMT as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 3 May 2022.

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