Stunning live shot : Marty Moffatt
At one point during the concert last night, the last of a four night run at London’s legendary Hammersmith Apollo, my companion turned to me and said that one of the things she particularly liked about Joe Bonamassa is that he is a showman but he’s not showy. The distinction is an important one and it helps to explain why, over the years, Joe Bonamassa’s star has continued to be on the ascent. He has a passion for the blues, a love for the guitar and an ability to work the crowd, but he does not stop to indulge himself for too long, always mindful that the song must be served above and beyond the desire to demonstrate technical ability, and the result is that the audience can relate to Joe in a way that they can far too few other artists. That Joe Bonamassa also happens to have a remarkable knack for writing memorable songs only adds fuel to the fire of his fans’ passion and it should come as no surprise that many of those packing out the Apollo on Saturday can be heard discussing the other nights that they have already witnessed – he just inspires that sort of commitment.
Another element to factor in is the fact that Joe Bonamassa chooses his touring band with consummate care. Behind the drums in Hammersmith we have the pile of blonde curls that is Tal Bergman. Tal is a regular Bonamassa sidekick and he is one of those rare drummers who not only plays the blues with real subtlety but who can also explode in a fiery display of Bonham-esque pyrotechnics when the moment demands. Hence the night’s rendition of ‘Oh Beautiful’ feels like Led Zeppelin reborn whilst ‘I gave up on everything for you, ‘cept the blues’ has a gorgeous swing to it, all thanks to Tal’s steady-as-a-rock presence. Another familiar face is the wonderful Carmine Rojas, surely one of the coolest bassists alive. Never flashy, yet technically gifted, Carmine is equally content to lay down a ferocious rock groove or a more whimsical blues run and the near psychic link that seems to exist between Carmine, Tal and Joe is what keeps the show loose and yet entirely on the money. Joining the familiar three are Danny Sadownick (percussion), Lee Thornburg (trumpet), Pauly Cera (sax), Nick Lane (trombone) and, right at the front of the stage, the brilliant Reese Wynans who made his name playing with the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. It is a dream band and they bring a great deal of energy and passion to the show that is all their own, frequently inspiring the crowd to clap or simply dancing away on the stage as if they can’t help but move to the music.
As for the music, well, it’s another Bonamassa masterclass in the blues and it’s also the first chance to hear tracks from the brilliant ‘different shades of blue album’, with Joe playing six of that album’s eleven tracks, alongside a selection of covers ranging from Howling Wolf (showcased on the stunning Muddy Wolf album) to Otis Rush and a couple of familiar classics. It is an inspired set list because it offers something completely new for fans who saw Joe on last year’s tour and it underscores the fact that Joe is not content to simply keep reheating old classics when he has so much new material to indulge.
Opening, like the album, with a brief cover of ‘Hey Baby (new rising sun)’, the show explodes into life with ‘oh beautiful’. On record ‘Oh beautiful’ has a certain power, but live it’s like being treated to a previously unreleased Led Zeppelin track in full for the first time. There’s a magnificent power to Joe’s playing, a searing rock energy and the blistering solo that Joe unleashes at the song’s heart is enough to set the first few rows ablaze. This may be the fourth night, but Joe is in the mood to take no prisoners and he tears into the song like a man possessed. Joe continue with the equally vital ‘never give all your heart’ with its wailing opening solo and crushing riffs sounding all the more punishing in the live environment. From then on it’s a side step to a cover of ‘hidden charms’ and then two more tracks from ‘different shades…’ both beautifully enhanced by the brass section. Certainly ‘living on the moon’ benefits from a strong brass presence and then ‘trouble town’ appears with its syncopated beat and upbeat feel and the Apollo truly feels like a mass party rather than just another concert.
As with all Bonamassa gigs the time passes insanely fast, and why not when the talk is kept to a minimum and the hits, well, they just keep a-coming? We get more covers (from Howling Wolf, Freddie King and, of course, that Tim Curry cover), we get two more songs from ‘different shades…’ (‘I gave up on everything, ‘cept the blues’ and ‘love ain’t a love song’); we get two unassailable hits in the form of ‘Sloe gin’ and ‘the ballad of John Henry’, here extended to Hendrixian proportions and with the Theremin part replaced by blazing guitar work, and we close with the Muddy Waters workout ‘all aboard’ complete with a guest appearance from Randy Bachman of Bachman-turner overdrive, who turns in a sloppy yet serviceable performance. It provides the perfect close to a damn near perfect gig and it is a pleasure to see Joe airing so much new material alongside some truly inspired covers.
The brilliance of a Joe Bonamassa gig (and the reason he has been able to sell so many live DVDs) is that every single one is different. Each tour gets its own line up of musicians and each tour has such a wildly varied set list that you can always look forward to a fair few surprises, with the only constant being Joe’s never-less-than-stellar playing. It may have been the fourth night of a residence, but Joe and his band made it sound as fresh as if it were the first and the audience left fully satisfied after an exquisite demonstration of the staying power of the blues.