There has been a tendency amongst press and music fans alike to conflate attitude and charisma into a single entity, but whilst the former is easily generated artificially, the latter is something that few possess. Joe Bonamassa is one of those few artists, and at the NIA we are treated to the full force of his personality alongside a dazzling musical display that, at times, threatens to take the roof off the building as the near-capacity audience cheer and scream their approval.
What makes a Joe Bonamassa show so special is that although Joe is a consummate bluesman, in love with the traditional structures and artistry of the blues, he plays with the fiery passion of a rock star, his Les Paul flaming away with the might of Clapton’s youthful intensity as a member of Cream, his soul divided between the twin towers of the blues and hard rock. This is not the bedraggled blues of the eighties, dragged into AOR by its damaged musicians, but the glorious flaming spirit of the blues channelled through Hendrix and Deep Purple; shades of Led Zeppelin shot through a mix dominated by highlights from Joe’s solo albums and some expertly chosen and brilliantly delivered covers. It is a night that will live long in the memory of the 4500 people who attended the show.
The show starts with Iron Maiden’s ‘two minutes to midnight’ blasting out over the PA, the air of expectation amongst the audience almost feverishly high. As the volume increases, movement on the stage announces the band’s arrival, and suddenly a blinding white light shines on Joe as he chugs out the oh-so-familiar riff to ‘slow train’, one of the many highlights of recent album ‘dustbowl’. It is the perfect opening song, the tempo rising and then that brilliantly dusty voice breaking out over the soulful riff and we’re all transported to the very heart of Joe’s blues. A track from ‘the ballad of John Henry’ in the form of ‘last Kiss’ appears next, all smoky riffs and shuffle beat drums, as Joe prowls the stage making sure that he takes in the whole crowd from beneath his ubiquitous shades as he tears awe-inspiring solos from his guitar. Joe’s band are equally worthy of praise, the taut rhythms laid down by Carmine Rojas (a master of the bass) and Tal Bergman (drummer extraordinaire) provide the perfect frame upon which Joe paints his solos whilst Rick Melick provides the colour with his subtle yet essential keyboard lines. The interaction between the four is a joy to behold and you can see that everybody on stage is thrilled to be here and playing this music – almost as thrilled as the audience are to be in attendance. Gary Moore’s wonderful ‘Midnight blues’ gets an airing next, reproduced here with its slow-burning and sultry opening giving way to a solo that the very gods would envy and Joe feeling every note as he mouths each and every intonation. It’s a remarkable performance and yet the best is still to come as Joe dons a tremolo-modded Les Paul to play the title track from ‘Dust Bowl’ with its memorable chorus of “lifting me up / tearing me down/ all you give me is indecision / the classic run-around” set to a more incendiary pace than the laid-back studio original. Howlin’ Wolf gets an airing next as Joe busts out “who’s been talkin’”, but the biggest cheer is reserved for Joe’s legendary cover of Tim Curry’s ‘Sloe gin’ with its achingly-beautiful guitar solo and heart-felt lyrics made entirely Joe’s own for a performance that has the audience spellbound.
Having utterly entranced the entire crowd, Joe takes a moment to chat with us, thanking everybody humbly for attending and recounting, like a schoolboy who can’t quite believe he’s won some fabulous prize, that there are 4500 people in the NIA. He then displays his good-natured humour when he also informs us that half of Birmingham’s police force are in attendance and that he sincerely hopes that criminal types will refrain from their nefarious acts between the hours of 7:30 and 10:00 PM so that said officers can watch the show uninterrupted. It’s then that Joe unveils his masterstroke – the sublime ‘the ballad of John Henry’, a crunching, led Zeppelin referencing blast that sees the Theremin put to good use in the second half of the song. It’s a dazzling, monstrously powerful masterpiece that should be required listening in every home the world over. Another track from that album is then belted out in the form of ‘Lonesome road blues’ which so enthuses one audience member that the track is met by a cry of “you are epic!” which brings a smile to everyone’s face. The next track comes courtesy of Joe’s “other band” Black Country Communion, when he plays the beautiful ‘song of yesterday’ which fits just perfectly into the set with its heart-breaking main riff and Joe’s stunning vocal, and for a moment we’re all transported away from our everyday lives to some other, magical place.
Of course, being a Joe Bonamassa show there must be guests, and tonight we are treated to an appearance from former Whitesnake guitarist and legendary player Bernie Marsden for a marvellous rendition of Clapton’s ‘Further on up the road’ which sees the guitarists duelling across the stage, both coming off very favourably indeed. Bernie sticks around for a further cover – in the form of Jeff Beck’s ‘blues deluxe’- and the atmosphere remains electric until he finally departs the stage to a huge cheer from the crowd. As Joe’s twin neck guitar appears on stage it’s time for a cover of The Who’s evergreen ‘young man blues’, but first we get to witness some wonderful interplay between Joe and Tal as they duel over solos – a battle that Joe nearly throws with a cheeky nod to led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to heaven’ before the band tear into the song. Following a remarkable drum solo, the band leave Joe alone with an acoustic for the terrifyingly nimble-fingered ‘woke up dreaming’ which is just remarkable – a display of virtuosity replete with heart and soul that is followed up by the mind-blowingly atmospheric ‘Django’ which has a simply beautiful intro that brings tears to the eyes. One final song in the form of ‘mountain time’ and the band leave the stage amidst cries for more…
…and more we get as Joe treats us to a brand new song from an album which, he faithfully promises us, will contain absolutely no hits at all, a fact that brings both Joe and the audience endless pleasure. The new track, ‘driving toward the daylight’ is an absolute belter, and a sign that the new album (of the same name) is liable to be yet another Bonamassa classic, but for us it all ends as the man dons a Flying V to belt out ZZ Top’s ‘just got paid’ for an electric finale that actually does tear the roof off the place leaving the crowd to file out, shell-shocked, unable even to cry for more so exhaustively brilliant has tonight’s wonderful show been.
It is rare to see an artist who can legitimately play for two and half hours, but ask anybody in attendance and they will tell you that those minutes flew by as if Joe had only been on stage for half the time he actually was. Like the very best performers, Joe has the rare ability to pace and judge his performance so that, just when you think you’ve had enough, he’ll change tack completely, ensnaring you once again and keeping your interest peaked for the entire show. And what a show! The whole band are remarkable, but Joe Bonamassa simply shines as brightly as any star, his expert working of the crowd a result of his good-natured charm rather than bullish rock star arrogance; and his love of music shining through every single song and every single note. That this man is in love with his art is unquestionable, but what sets him apart is his ability to communicate this love to every person in the audience, whether they be in the stalls at the front or up on high near the back of the venue. It was an amazing, communal experience of a show and one that I, and the other 4499 people at the NIA, will undoubtedly never forget. A perfect evening.
All Photos courtesy of Lee Millward