It’s not about the conscientious hours spent in rehearsal rooms or the scrupulous production values… it’s not about the guardianship of precious instruments or the indispensable tutelage of others. It’s not even about the meritorious songwriting or jamming with groups of like-minded pals. And it’s certainly not about the miles-upon-miles of travel, the royalty collecting, the music publishing, the label services or the distribution, negotiating, deal-making, back cataloguing or other innumerable activities with agents, promoters, bookers and pluggers. It’s about one thing and one thing alone: it’s about standing in front of the monitors to play with fire and passion — to play from heart and soul. This is what blues-rock is really about. And it’s what JOE BONAMASSA does best.
So, after the goose-pimpling John Barry theme tune from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” [well, it’s a brylcreemed man, wearing a dark suit, and equipped with a powerful weapon who is about to enter the focal point of British culture, so I suppose it’s appropriate] Bonamassa arrives on stage with his Les Paul for the Muddy Waters cover “Tiger in Your Tank.” He punkishly bangs the beat out for this old-time boogie and the number gives everyone in the band an opportunity to flex their musical muscles and air their technique.
For the swaggering rock ‘n’ roller “King Bee Shakedown” he reaches for the black bottleneck and takes it for a slide. [It has its own little stand.] It isn’t long before Joe is up the front and “Nighthawking” the strings. “It’s off the frets, man…” the fan sitting to my right screams out, with excitement. And, it’s true… Joe takes the lick into the heavenly realm by sliding all the way to the pick-ups.
“Evil Mama” taken from 2018’s “Redemption” begins with a startling burst of drums [Anton Fig] and incorporates prodigious brass. Here, the vocal is hefty and the backing is substantial. The guitar is slack, though not imprecise, with an easy elbow and given lots of grease space to emit a sound that reminds us of how a Cadillac DeVille might splash oil from its valve cover on a rainy night. The song is one of several opportunities for space and freedom that Joe gives generously to his assembled musos. The chance to impress. So, here, the sweet-releaser Mr. Reese Wynans on keys presents us with a diagonal shimmer and scooped, greasy fingerfuls of creamy slur.
“Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should” has a growling riff and some bighearted backing vox from Australian singers Mahalia Barnes & Jade MacRae. “It took them about 3 days to get here...” Joe tells us later, with a smile. Is this song about fame? Fame is a liar and she is an unfaithful lover and destroyer. Is hers the face in the crowd we should try to ignore?
“This Train” begins with a Bachian piano (fitting, in this dome-roofed temple dedicated to the arts & sciences) and soon it becomes a vibrant roll with a wonderful sixties style and hugely tooting sax-play from Paulie Cerra alongside the distinguished yet ultra-exciting trumpeteer Lee Thornburg. This number rushes along rusted iron rhythms like a 2-4-2 tank engine on the Pacific coast railroad.
For us, the standout number of the “first half” of the Albert Hall show (in other words, the set of songs that run continuously, buffer-to-buffer, before Bonamassa addresses the crowd) ) is the mystical and evocative “Blues of Desperation”. This has spooky ghost-dance rhythms, bull-frog bellows, wild turkey cries and dark prods of darkened thrum from the Louisiana bass-man Michael Rhodes who also plays col legno with a spike. This is where the solid-body “Firebird” manifests itself; as Joe creates creepy moments, some twisted by a pitch-shifter, so the sounds come as smoky and sweltering as the sourness of a dark night on the bayou.
Finally, Joe goes to the microphone to announce that this concert celebrates his tenth anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall. “I’m ten years older and ten pounds heavier…” he declares. And after this, he introduces the band, most of whom were with him ten years ago. “And me? My name is Joseph Bonamassa...”
After the introductions, Joe welcomes schoolboy Toby Lee onto stage, the prodigious 14-year-old London guitarist and “future blues-rock superstar”.
Bonamassa knows all about wunderkind virtuosity — he was playing guitar himself, aged four. He says he owes much to Eric Clapton who invited him onto stage at the Royal Albert Hall (2009) to ask him to duet.
Another stand-out moment, this time in the second-half, is the slow-burn cover of “Sloe Gin” (originally by Tim Curry, yes, he from Rocky Horror) with a heavenly keyboard opening and ever-growing weeps of guitar to pile-on the undoubted grief. On this number, Joe’s voice is at its purest and most passionate.. and the slow heartache is palpable.
Another amazing concert by the master of blues-rock. He is never complacent, never indolent. And, although there are blues in his heart, he never lacks a fervent inventiveness or the will to give us everything he has.
Here’s to another ten years!
Words: @neilmach 2019 ©
Photos: Credit © Marty Moffatt