The performance by Joe Bonamassa on this Friday evening in the rarified atmosphere of the Albert Hall was nothing short of magisterial; a master class in how to deliver a killer set of songs and at the same time too, seemingly with hardly any effort, play consistently brilliant blues-rock guitar, ripping out scintillating solos like a magician pulling rabbits out a hat. Of course, it’s not like he hasn’t done it all before a 1000 times and even the hallowed ground of the Albert Hall has become, since his landmark first visit ten years earlier, a familiar stamping ground. However, Bonamassa manages to turn his gigs into real events by the sheer force of his musical presence; the boy can sure play! It helps of course that, as you might expect, he has a first-rate band behind him that combines super slickness with high energy. It also doesn’t hurt that the band contains keyboard supremo Reese Wynans, who knows a bit about underpinning guitar legends through his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan over many years (and who has his own strong album fresh on the racks, “Reese Wynans and Friends”).
Anyone who has delved into the career history of the man realises that he approaches the blues with an eclectic approach and the happy knack of choosing songs from his musical heroes that fit his sound perfectly (and which are crowd pleasers) as well as collaborating with other songwriters to produce a great selection of home-grown tunes that set a high standard that very few others in the same field can match. Opening number “Tiger in Your Tank”, a Muddy Water number, was prefaced with some spoken words from the great man (as heard on his “Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks” album”) which was followed by a roar from the crowd as the star of the show appeared from stage left, sporting his usual dark two-piece suit, slicked back hair and shades, and moved straight to the front of the stage. Like a lot of his covers, the version played is definitely the Bonamassa version, souped-up power chords accentuating the pushes and his distinctive vocals over the top of a band that are into their stride straight away, with a fluid solo that tried to squeeze in as many notes as possible, showing what could be expected over the rest of the evening. The energy level kicked up a gear with the second song of the set, the infectious rollicking groove of “King Bee Shakedown” from his most recent album, the excellent “Redemption”, with the two-man horn section of Paulie Cerra on sax and Lee Thornburg on trumpet working overtime. JoBo casually playing the super-fast descending turn around licks and some characteristically powerful slide. More songs from Redemption followed, “Evil Mama”, the Albert King-inspired “Just ‘Cause You Can Don’t Mean You Should“ (featuring some trademark big note bends) and “Self-Inflicted Wounds.” The set progressed backwards in terms of the chronology of recent releases with several tracks from the superb “Blues of Desperation”: “This Train” a fast-paced rocker driven down the tracks by the 100 mile an hour beats of drummer Anton Fig, his sticks a metronomic blur; the moody and epic title track from that album was introduced by the lean (some might say cadaverous looking), tall bassist, Michael Rhodes, hitting his instrument up by the bridge with what looked like a tuning fork, or some other gizmo, that created a chiming, ominous sound like a spectral didgeridoo. “How Deep this River Runs” had an equally epic feel about it, with powerful dynamics, helped by the soaring vocals of the two backing singers Mahalia Barnes and Jade MacRae, who really added to the overall sound throughout as well as providing visual interest as they swayed and danced along to the music.
It goes without saying that Bonamassa’s guitar playing was phenomenal; he propelled each song, often with power chords while singing, before unleashing extended searing solos that were often breathtaking. Unlike many guitar virtuosos his playing tends to work for the benefit of the song rather than just being a vehicle to demonstrate prowess. This is not to say that he didn’t milk some of the long extended solos for maximum effect, standing front of the stage, arched back, with the crowd entranced as he repeated a motif repeatedly at high speed Changing guitars frequently he squeezed every kind of tone from the range of Les Pauls, Telecasters and 335s (and more) that was possible. During his signature tune “Sloe Gin” he showed what a fabulous feel he has for playing those classic blues guitar phrases that rely on feel and the selection of a few key notes rather than having to cram in every note in the scale twice over. Blueswailing continued beautifully during his one song collaboration with the ubiquitous stage guest Bernie Marsden (who added a typically melodic solo) and during “Tea for One” segued with “I Can’t Quite you Baby” where he made expressively weeping sounds from his guitar as he hit the string and moved the volume level with his little finger at the same time to create a unique sound, the band taking it way down, the audience spellbound before the solo built and built slowly to a powerful crescendo. Returning to the stage alone for an encore Joe treated the audience to the acoustic tour de force that is “Woke up Dreaming” that went on for about 10 minutes; a breeze through Cream’s “SWALBR” and another epic performance of “Mountain Time” concluded a fantastic set of around two hours twenty minutes from the blues superstar; one that will stay in the memory for a long time.