There’s a palpable sense of anticipation amongst the faithful in a full Royal Albert Hall. The stuttering recovery of the live scene after Covid feels like it might hit a more purposeful stride tonight. Joe Bonamassa loves a grand stage such as this. He regularly pays respectful dues to his blues rock influences in music and words. Appearing on this iconic stage feels important to the New York State bluesman. He knows exactly how many times he and his fellow musicians have played here and he tells us later during the band introductions.
The lights drop at exactly 7.30pm and JB is welcomed onto stage accompanied by a drum intro that could be Led Zep’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’. ‘Evil Mama’ comes from 2018’s ‘Redemption’ and of course it is a series of choppy licks that kick in rather than Page’s famous riff. Bonamassa is quickly into his stride. But it is Steve Mackey on bass that captures the attention here. He’s driving the track with a complex, rolling rhythm over which Bonamassa and Reese Wynans on keyboard sprinkle their magic dust.
A quick guitar change and then Bonamassa leads the band straight into ‘Dust Bowl’. A much more spare, downbeat track, shifting the mood from the opener and again making space for Mackey and Wynans. It’s also the moment when Bonamassa delivers his first extended solo of the set. He’s out on the lip of the stage, crouching over his guitar and winding up a haunting passage that draws the first spontaneous applause from the crowd.
‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’ varies considerable from the studio version, shorn of horns and featuring a much harder edge. Ground out on a Stratocaster, the track sounds unexpectedly and pleasingly tough. The keyboard passage from Wynans here is superb: a lush Hammond B3 interplaying with and setting up another strong guitar solo passage. This re-arranging and lengthening of studio tracks to showcase Bonamassa’s talent, as well as that of Wynans’ unequalled flourishes, is the broad template for a good chunk of this superb set.
There are fewer covers in a typical Bonamassa set these days, so what a pleasure to hear Gary Moore’s ‘Midnight Blue’. Jade Macrae and Dani De Andrea on backing vocals really come to the fore on what becomes a beautiful, tender rendition. Bonamassa is eking out every splinter of emotion during the lead break. This is a great choice of cover. Whilst there’s reasonably common acceptance that his own material is getting consistently stronger, there’s nothing in JB’s self-penned back catalogue quite so wracked with bleak, desperate magnificence as this track.
We are in to the heart of the show now. The next three songs are more recent compositions and fit together really well. ‘The Heart That Never Waits’ from latest release ‘Time Clocks’; ‘I Didn’t Think She Would Do It’ from ‘Royal Tea’; and oldest of the trio, ‘Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should’ from ‘Redemption’. During the swaggering ‘The Heart…’ Joe takes the tempo and volume down to indulge in a little nurdling that invokes a flavour of early 70’s British Blues and even a little prog rock. After his quiet passage, the crowd erupts, Joe removes his shades and feigns to leave the stage as if he can’t beat that. There’s a collective chuckle and he turns on his heel to finish the track with a particularly thunderous sequence.
Bonamassa changes his guitar for the seventh song in succession and launches ‘I Didn’t Think She Would Do It’. The track is very Stevie Ray Vaughan tonight. No complaint. And no surprise either, with Reese Wynan’s on keys, inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame for his time in Vaughan’s backing band Double Trouble. There is a good dose of funky ‘Say What’ in the snap of Greg Morrow’s drums, alongside Wynans’ majesty and Bonamassa’s chops.
The setlist gets a good shake up every tour, but a staple – and indeed his most played live track (according to a certain well-known online resource) – is ‘Sloe Gin’. Gin-o’clock already at the Royal Albert Hall. Every element of this fabulous band comes together to deliver a slow-burn belter. All you would expect from the music, but also moments for Bonamassa’s vocals to shine. It is easy to focus on the guitar virtuosity – and why not – but the man is singing his heart out here. The effort is telling and there’s significant mopping down of brows to be done at the track’s climax.
In some quarters there is a modicum of criticism levelled at a Joe Bonamassa show because of his rigid demeanour. Certainly he wears the same cut of shiny suit, shade of white shirt, turn of leather brogue and wrap of dark shades at every gig. And, save for the odd post-song comment, he saves a chat with the audience for this point in every show. That’s fine though. When the music is this good, this vibrant, a few elements of dependable predictability are no bad thing.
During the rolling blues of ‘A Conversation With Alice’, second guitarist Josh Smith gets a solo and bathe of the spotlight. It is the first time he has moved all night. Indeed the whole band is a little static, leaving Bonamassa the room to prowl the stage, throw shapes, chuck his head skyward and attempt to pour his very soul into the guitar.
‘Lonely Boy’ is a rock ‘n’ roll number that sits a little awkwardly on its album home, but here is brought to life with some fiery playing and lusty vocals. It makes a strong connection with the audience who are now all on their feet. Except up in the Gods, where such a rash act would be inviting an industrial accident.
The main set comes to a close with a breath-taking ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ where, amongst the instrumental set-pieces that build around JB’s guitar to bring the band in on a long crescendo of emotional playing, Dani De Andrea almost steals the show. Her tour de force vocal solo piece draws a collective intake of breath. This may seem random but the power and artistry of her segment brings a sense of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’.
JB re-emerges for the encore alone, except for an acoustic guitar, and turns out a frantic ‘Woke Up Dreaming’. For the only time tonight, attentions were wandering. But not so the bloke in the front row, who insists on conducting Bonamassa through his piece with extended arms. Until JB simply stops mid-chord and grins at the punter, waiting to see what he will do next. It’s a lovely moment of levity and the guitarist drops to his knees to pass the guy his pick.
Time for another story. JB tells us that Will Jennings, the co-writer of tonight’s final track, ‘Mountain Time’, hung up his quill shortly after their collaboration. His ship quite literally came in when the words he had written for Celine Dion’s Titanic ballad ‘My Heart Will Go On’ had just gone seriously monster. The track flows, glides, twists and turns. Bonamassa sounding mellow on vocals and Wynans’ providing the right wash of Hammond undertow.
For this reviewer’s money (and as a tight-arsed Yorkshireman, this is not said lightly), Bonamassa is getting better. Previously the songs could feel like they were mere platforms for another face-melting solo. Tonight, the depth of material, thoughtful arrangements, quality of the musicians and respectful inter-play between them gave a rounded, intense and fully-immersive experience. 130 minutes had flown by. Absolutely stunning.
Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Laurence Harvey
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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Power Plays w/c 16 May 2022 (Mon-Fri)
FLOYA The Hymn (Arising Empire)
VEXES The Dream Disease (indie)
NEAR DUSK The Way It Goes (Iron Head Records)
IN SEARCH OF SUN Make Me Crazy (indie)
WALLNER VAIN Deceive Her (indie)
FIGHT THE FADE Where You Go I Go (FiXT)
MARATON Non-Euclidean Heart (Indie Recordings)
Featured Albums w/c 16 May (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 TERRA NOVA Ring That Bell (Lion Music)
12:00-13:00 FOZZY Boombox (Mascot)
14:00-16:00 MICHAEL McDERMOTT St.Paul’s Boulevard (Pauper Sky Records)
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