Album review: JOE BONAMASSA – Live At The Sydney Opera House

Joe Bonamassa - Live at The Sydney Opera House

Provogue [Release date 25.10.19]

‘Live At The Sydney Opera House’ is staggeringly Joe Bonamassa’s 17th live album and while the geography may change and the material recycles recent studio material, the performance is consistently good.

If his strategy is to put out as much product as possible to retain media attention, he is obviously on track.  And whatever the reservations about the avalanche of recordings this album leaves us in no doubt about the quality of the music.

Putting aside questions regarding “never mind the quality, feel the width”, Bonamassa has also worked hard to become a big ticket draw, and on the evidence of a performance like this, he’s worked equally hard on his own artistic development.

He’s teamed up seasoned industry song writers, and forged an ongoing writing relationship with James House (5 tracks feature here), while notably improving his vocals and testing his chops to the max in a big band setting.

Listen for example, to the opening ‘This Train’, which shifts from being a tired train metaphor to a pounding rocker with a big B3 break. The subtly layered sound with vivacious bv’s and horns craft a Bo Diddley beat to perfectly frame a tremulous guitar solo as the band slips into overdrive.

The song also illustrates the way his band members are an integral part of the arrangements.  Reese Wynans for example, switches from lovely ascending piano lines to a B3 break, which he revisits on ‘How Deep This River Runs’.

The horn section of Lee Thornburg on trumpet, Paulie Cerra on saxophone also fatten the sound and add stellar solos on the album when called upon.

The first 3 tracks stick to the running order of ‘Blues Of Desperation’, but everything suddenly get’s more intense on  ‘Love is Ain’t A Love Song’,  as JB explores some judicious guitar squalls and nuanced volume swells over delicate percussion, before the band rises as one majestically.

There’s contrast too,  between the muscular Zeppelin machinations of ‘Mountain Climbing’ – on which the music evokes the thematic content of the title – and the following atmospheric ‘Drive’, notable for a more restrained whispered vocal on a song that’s made for film noir.

The smooth flowing ‘Mainline Florida’ offers a change of pace and guitar tone on which The Allman Brothers style solo evokes the title’s geography in a southern rock way.

However, not everything matches those moments. ‘Blues Of Desperation’ for example, is full of bluster – portentous tom-toms, an eastern sounding guitar tone, layered synth, bone crunching riffs, a big solo, swirling keys  and horn stabs – but even this musical armoury can’t rescue an ordinary song.

But as with the very best live sets, so with this album, they finish on a high with the booming blues of ‘No Good Place For The Lonely’. The song features a fine vocal and moves towards a slight drop-down before Bonamassa cuts through the track with a searing solo flanked by feverish horns.

It leaves us in no doubt as to his ability to make an essential connection with a resonant tone on an expertly woven solo, which tops everything that has gone before. Cue the audience response and a distant thank you on a quick fade.

Put simply, when you pay top dollar, you get the best band in town in a prestige setting. The result is another live album that kicks all reservations into touch with the sheer exhilaration of contemporary blues at its best. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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