Sometimes, if you are a regular concert goer, you find yourself standing in a crowd thinking about your day-to-day life, wondering about work/school/bills/family etc… as a lacklustre band goes through the motions on the stage before you. It shouldn’t happen that way because music, particularly in the live environment, should engage you; take you out of your everyday life and transcend the mundane, transporting you to a magical world where anything is possible and where inspiration and enthusiasm flow freely. Joe Bonamassa is an artist of the latter variety. The full-to-bursting NIA contained a huge number of Bonamassa veterans, proudly swapping tales of the number of JB gigs they’d been to and yet as the lights dimmed and an oddball, countrified ‘highway to hell’ floated through the speakers, the aura of hushed expectation would suggest that the entire crowd had never seen the man before.
Perhaps it is the fact that Joe Bonamassa is, quite simply, one of the most charismatic blues performers since BB King; perhaps it is the fact that the man never plays his songs the same way twice, adopting the traditional blues idea that anything is open to reinterpretation, no matter how sacred it might be; perhaps it is the fact that when he’s playing time seems to evaporate before your eyes as you find yourself becoming lost in the moment even as the same thing happens to Joe on stage, standing tall and pouring heart and soul into any one of many exquisite solos. Perhaps it is all of these things and perhaps each person’s reaction to Joe’s music is as unique as the man himself, but whatever it is, what is unequivocal is the respect with which Joe is treated, with the audience attentively awaiting every note and not even a hint of the background chatter that frequently mars concerts these days. From the opening acoustic performance through to the blistering, extended ‘Ballad of John Henry’ the audience are held enraptured by Joe and his band and the love flowing form audience to stage is palpable.
Such love is thoroughly deserved. A Joe Bonamassa show is not so much a performance as an event and between Joe’s stunning performance and a band (now featuring the wonderful Derek Sherinian) who prove to be both devastatingly tight and disarmingly charismatic, it is safe to say no-one leaves disappointed. The choice of venue is also important on occasions like these and, despite being clad in building material (the NIA is receiving a full revamp) the NIA is the perfect place to witness such a spectacle. Large enough to accommodate Joe’s legions of fans and yet small enough to be intimate (unlike the cavernous NEC) it also boasts excellent acoustics and some of the friendliest venue staff going, meaning that atmosphere stays relaxed even as the music bursts vividly from the speakers with power and precision. In short, it is a perfect night and, at the centre of the hurricane stands Joe Bonamassa, resplendent in a purple suit and looking as effortlessly suave as ever.
The show starts in a more low key fashion than the last time Joe set foot in the NIA. Opting to begin with an acoustic spot, we get a virtuoso rendition of ‘Palm trees, helicopters and gasoline’ before Joe is joined by drummer extraordinaire Tal Bergman and Derek Sherinian for a pair of covers – Bad Company’s legendary ‘seagull’ and Charles Mingus’ ‘Jelly Roll’ – both of which feature a delightful amount of interplay between the band who are clearly thrilled to be playing together. ‘Athens to Athens’ follows and then Derek and tal leave the stage so that Joe can unleash one last flurry of astonishing guitar work on the acoustic on ‘woke up dreaming’ before the stage goes black and the intro to ‘dust bowl’ slowly appears out of a haze of synth.
‘Dust bowl’ – a stunning modern blues number, it’s a song
that never grows old or stale, and with the band (now joined by the brilliant Carmine Rojas) throwing in a reggae flourish or two just to keep things fresh, the song tears the roof clear off the venue. Joe Bonamassa always excels in the live environment, but his current band sound absolutely immense and as the evening progresses they go on to even greater musical feats. The show continues with the hard, driving ‘story of a quarry man’ and another pair of covers – Howling Wolf’s ‘who’s been talking?’ (which opens with a brief clip of the great man talking) and Eric Clapton’s evergreen ‘someday after a while’ which gives Derek a chance to showcase his own skills – before we reach the glorious mid-section of the concert which sees Joe don a twin-necked guitar for the hard rock of ‘dislocated boy’, and then ‘driving towards the daylight’, ‘slow train’ and ‘midnight blues’ delivered in quick succession to an audience who don’t know whether to clap, scream, cry or laugh in delight. It’s a sublime set list, covering every angle and delivered with unerring passion by Joe who tears at his fret board like a man possessed. It is a simple unmitigated pleasure to watch the band lock into the groove as Joe wanders the stage delivering the latter song’s elegant solo and you’re left wondering if it could possibly get any better than this.
It wouldn’t be a Birmingham gig without Joe producing Bernie Marsden and so, with the affable guitarist having appeared on stage to a huge cheer, we are treated to a deeply funky ‘look over yonders wall’, Bernie delivering a rip-roaring solo at its heart as the band and audience look on in delight. Another treat for the audience appears in the form of a Black Country Communion track – ‘song of yesterday’ (complete with cheeky nod to the Who’s ‘won’t get fooled again’) and the show ends with traditional closer ‘Django/Mountain time’. With the audience delivering a standing ovation, the band quickly return for an encore and an unusually chatty Joe wryly informs us of his foolishness in having tried to drop ‘sloe gin’ from the set (negative emails apparently abounded) before playing it “for the umpteenth time” with a considerable amount of passion and energy for a song he’s supposedly grown tired of. The finale is a mesmerising, massively extended ‘Ballad of John Henry’ which sounds utterly colossal with its Led Zeppelin riffery and extended, near-progressive breaks. It is a huge, overwhelming conclusion to a set that did not put a single foot wrong the whole night. The band giver their all and the curtain call sees Joe receive either his second standing ovation of the night as the audience roar their appreciation for an artist who only seems to get better with time.
What more is there to say? Joe Bonamassa’s performance at the NIA was simply flawless. A brilliantly paced and chosen set that neatly covered the whole gamut of Joe’s wide take on blues, from more traditional pieces through to blistering hard rock via progressive expansiveness, the performance not only provided a stunning display of virtuoso musicianship, but it also showcased Joe’s charmingly charismatic delivery. Just watching the band’s friendly, yet respectful and professional interaction bought a smile to the face and the music – the music was nothing less than sublime from start to finish. Joe Bonamassa has already provided one of the best concerts I have had the privilege of attending, and here at the NIA he did it once again, effortlessly highlighting exactly why he is one of the most revered figures in blues today. A wonderful musician and a master showman, Joe Bonamassa is a genuine treasure and it was an honour and a privilege to see him at work in front of such an appreciative and good natured crowd.
All Photos: Christie Goodwin