Thursday 20th April
Royal Albert Hall, London
How do you measure musical greatness? Size of audience? Well, Joe Bonamassa is now very much big time playing iconic spectacular venues like the Royal Albert Hall three times in 8 years. This is the Joe Bonamassa who expertly combines arguably the two most important era’s of Blues music from the Mississippi Delta sound in the US which was strangely misplaced by the American music community until the British invasion where bands like The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page where delivering back that Blues sound with altogether different attitude and energy. With his insatiable work ethic, Bonamassa puts many fellow musicians to shame with his seemingly never-ending output.
This RAH gig was the first of two nights in the middle of a short UK tour from JB taking in Edinburgh, Blackpool and Sheffield and was a continuation of the ‘Blues Of Desperation’ tour that started in the US last year and continues onward through Europe and then back to the USA and Canada. This UK tour also follows hot on the heels of Joe's critically acclaimed ‘Salute to the British Blues Explosion’ 2016 tour that saw the American guitarist paying homage to the music of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Page on the banks of the River Thames at Greenwich at the Old Royal Naval College amongst other venues and where the WRC last saw him...
For this auspicious occasion however, the WRC decided to really "push the boat out" and delve in to their pockets at some considerable expense and hire a small 5-seater box at the RAH. Get us eh? All very corporate for us lot with drink already laid out in the box on our arrival! Talk about covering both ends of the venue spectrum! And we were in Box 78 which was somehow quite appropriate..The box was cosy to say the least but there was just enough room to invite a couple of potential new WRC members (Hi Steve and Julie!) for a pre-show drink which was fun.. Hope to see them again at another gig soon!
Joe’s legendary magic on the guitar is certainly no mean feat and his vast array of guitars on choice here are simply mindboggling, certainly if you enjoy ogling at guitar well dare I say porn, then Joe has the best on show, from Korina Flying V’s through to 59’ Les Paul’s, a Tele and a couple of Strats, he has it all. The hand-picked backing group shall we call them are a who’s who of whom have played with Joe for many years and certainly have accreditation lists a mile long including "The Tonight Show" (drummer Anton Fig) and working with Stevie Ray Vaughan (Rock and Roll Hall of Famer keyboardist Reese Wynans), the amalgamation of the group definitely feels like your stepping back in time with Joe’s big band approach. But no matter how good the band, all eyes and ears are on Joe....
To the songs themselves then, a group of 16 songs spanning Joe’s career so far, with five of the first six from the new album ‘Blues Of Desperation’, although at least one or two personal favourites of the WRC were omitted,(‘Sloe Gin’ and ‘Slow Train’) which was disappointing to put it mildly. However on the other hand we did get the wonderful ‘Dust Bowl’ and I guess sometimes it’s nice to hear something different in the mix like the stunningly dark title track ‘Blues Of Desperation’. It's entirely reasonable that a visionary artist such as Joe should want to share his latest work. Rarely, if at all, are any of the songs that Joe puts together are 3 minute radio friendly smackers, these are far more elaborate workings, yet all the guitar work is strangely simple yet so pure and wonderful to hear each note ring out. Proper serious Blues Rock is all Joe really wants and gets his blood flowing and with his voice growing in range and confidence with every passing year.
The band and Joe are exceptional on a number of the songs such as `How Deep This River Runs’, where to single out the backing singers are in such fine voice. And also with ‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’, where Joe’s ability to build a song into a crescendo of sheer noise and fun is exactly what we love about him. Half of the songs were covers of Joe's guitar heroes such as B.B. King and Eric Clapton (obviously!) and I particularly enjoyed his faultless cover of EC's sleek ‘Pretending’ which becomes the launch pad for an incomprehensible six string showcase while drummer Anton Fig and the cheerleading brass section lead the audience in keeping time. His two Led Zeppelin covers (‘Boogie With Stu’ and ‘How Many More Times’) did also go down particularly well. On the latter the frontman does what can only be described as a flurry of magic tricks: from The Edge-like harmonics to a near-silent breakdown involving much knob twiddling, to brief moments of wielding his axe like a machine gun.
The crowd, even though it was my 5th time watching the Blues maestro was still an odd one as it’s obviously all seated and although that’s perfect for the moment, it definitely felt that some energy was lost between crowd and Joe due to this separation and certainly took a good while to build up that liveliness that a support band would have been ideal for. Also just on a side note, this would certainly have been improved if Joe was a little more interactive with the crowd during the earlier part of the show instead of a just an obligatory "thank you" after each song. Despite wearing sunglasses throughout his set, Bonamassa doesn’t look a natural showman. Still he’s a man who speaks through his guitar where his true voice lies. He's never been one for all this stage patter lark except to remark while introducing the band mid-set that he considered himself ageing now as he reaches the ripe old age of 40 next month with just the 15 solo albums behind him.. Poor chap...!!! He could also certainly afford giant video screens to show his flying fingers in extreme close up, or, at the very least, his name in lights but no such frills evident here...
Overall though it was the usual technically superb set from the Blues master, the setting is breathtaking, the lighting is tasteful, the audience studious and the backing band, with the two female backing singers that have been recently added to the live show, are all absolutely on fire for the performance. And after 2 hours 20 mins some people will certainly feel that they got a lot of Joe for their buck. The WRC on the other hand weren't so sure.. Maybe it's because these days Joe is so good, perhaps too damn good and a bit too corporate for our tastes now although his playing is sublime. Maybe it's the inflated ticket prices (£100 and above for the best seats) as it ain't cheap to see Joe these days. Fans are highly disappointed at the £35 price tag for a Joe Bonamassa tour T- shirt for example.. However I am sure that we will continue to keep more than a passing eye on his progress from now on. For one thing, there is a ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’ acoustic multi-format project from Joe scheduled for June and also the fourth Black Country Communion later in 2017 for us to eagerly look forward to. Joe also said from the stage that he would be returning to the RAH in 2019 for three nights to celebrate his tenth anniversary at this venue. As ever, his relentless drive can only be marvelled at and admired. And wherever you stand on Joe Bonamassa the argument, nothing can detract from the undoubted talent of Joe Bonamassa the musician. Class is permanent after all isnt it? Wouldn't be surprised if I was there in 2 years time!!
1. This Train
2. Mainline Florida (Eric Clapton cover)
3. Mountain Climbing
4. Blues of Desperation
5. No Good Place for the Lonely
6. How Deep This River Runs
7. Boogie With Stu (Led Zeppelin cover)
8. Never Make Your Move Too Soon (B.B. King cover)
9. Angel of Mercy (Albert King cover)
10. Drum Solo
11. Love Ain't a Love Song
12. Dust Bowl
13. Little Girl (John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers cover)
14. Pretending (Eric Clapton cover)
15. Black Winter/Django
16. How Many More Times (Led Zeppelin cover) (with "The Hunter" snippet by Albert King)
17. Hummingbird (B.B. King cover)
Wrinkly The Silver (Pictures Laurence Harvey)