Approaching his 25th year as a professional musician, Joe Bonamassa continues to blaze a remarkably versatile artistic trail, and amass an authentic, innovative and soulful body of work.
There is so much to talk about Bonamassa aside from his raw talent – his independent approach to the music business, his passion and tireless work ethic, a diverse range of side projects and his promotion of the blues to the next generation. It’s all admirable stuff, but tonight in Birmingham, it’s just about sitting back to watch and listen to one of the world’s greatest guitar players, on the penultimate show of his current UK arena tour.
Slick as ever, in suit and sunglasses, Bonamassa enters to a rousing reception and sits centre stage to begin a five-song set of acoustic material, along with African drums and piano. ‘Palm Trees, Helicopters and Gasoline’ is followed by a cover of Bad Company’s ‘Seagull’, before – around the campfire versions of – Charles Mingus’ ‘Jelly Roll’ and ‘Athens to Athens’. Accompanying band members then retreat during a stomping rendition of ‘Woke Up Dreaming’, which sets the audience up for the main show.
Strapping on a classic sunburst Les Paul, Bonamassa lets loose through the full electric powerhouse tunes ‘Dust Bowl’ and ‘Story of a Quarryman’. It’s a sound, solid mix of the blues-rock guitar virtuoso backed by his band of exceptional quality and talent – Carmine Rojas (bass), Derek Sherinian (keyboards), and Tal Bergman (drums). There are mesmerising adaptations of Howling Wolf’’s ‘Who’s Been Talking’ and Eric Clapton’s ‘Someday After A While’, which includes one of a number of stand-out keyboard solo’s by Sherinian.
Bonamassa is handed his wow-worthy Ernie Ball Music Man double-neck guitar for the groove laden ‘Dislocated Boy’, before ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’ highlights the soulfully emotional end of his vocal range. Having joked at live performances about never writing a “hit” song, this has got to be a close as it gets – albeit a ballad with a simple, compelling chorus.
The show’s impressive lighting production momentarily turns dramatic as Tal Bergman hammers out the opening to the foot-stamping ‘Slow Train’, which leads us into a fantastic cover of Gary Moore’s ‘Midnight Blues’ where Bonamassa lets fly – not for the first time this evening – with a jaw-dropping solo. After which, as a man who lets his music do the talking, we hear from him.
“Good evening. Thanks for coming out on a Friday night. We’ve been here for a couple of days, hanging out, checking out your nightlife, your restaurants, your girls ..” begins his casual repartee, before introducing the band and being joined onstage by original Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden for a version of Freddie King’s ‘Look Over Yonders Wall’ – Marsden showing what he is still made of.
Black Country Communion’s ‘Song For Yesterday’, the elegant and melodic instrumental ‘Django’ and an energetic ‘Mountain Time’ bring the two-hour show to a climatic end, before the band re-emerge for the encore.
Saying he had recently pulled Tim Curry’s epic ‘Sloe Gin’ from his set for the first time in nine years, only to receive a message from a disgruntled fan, who had taken his wife to a show to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and been devastated he hadn’t played it – Bonamassa introduces the song: “Ladies and gentlemen, not one to wish to disappoint, I give you Sloe Freakin’ Gin”. With this, the beautifully, fluid number is given an outing that must have every hair, on the back of every neck in the arena standing to attention.
To finish, the band drop the hammer with a heavier than heavy, powerful rendition of ‘The Ballad of John Henry’, the fantastic, meaty blues-rock number with yet another otherworldly guitar solo from the man himself. Leaving the crowd to do nothing other than stand and applaud an astonishing performance by an astonishing artist.
Whilst I’d seen Bonamassa three times previously – twice solo and once with Black Country Communion, I had not expected to be blown away anymore than on previous occasions. However, that was a totally incorrect assumption on my behalf.
Review & Photography: Steve Johnston