Joe Bonamassa is one of those rare few artists for whom the ego comes a poor second to the power of the music that throbs through his veins. Few artists with a top twenty Billboard Charting album (the stunning ‘Blues of Desperation’) would take time out from their own busy schedule to pay homage to the music that inspired them. Even fewer would pass up the opportunity to throw in a few well-chosen originals rather than maintain the special atmosphere of a heartfelt tribute, and yet Joe Bonamassa embarked on such a tour, taking in just five venues across the UK, and culminating in a remarkable evening at the beautiful Newark Castle.
A one-time only event, this is the sort of concert that people will still be talking about in years to come thanks to an inspired set list that saw Joe deliver a tribute to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page with an energy that had the entire audience on its feet by its conclusion. Refusing to play it safe, Joe peppered the set list with gems from across the artists’ careers and, even with the audience seated, the vibe was electric. The fact that the event took place in the gorgeous confines of Riverside park (adjacent to the ruins of Newark castle), and that the stage was draped, quite unexpectedly, in sunshine for the whole of the performance, only added to the sense of occasion, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting end for this special tour.
Opting for an opening act (a rare move), Joe bought the wonderful Joanne Shaw Taylor along for the ride, and, with the fantastic new album ‘the dirty truth’ to promote, she kicked off the show with power and style. Joanne is not only a stunning exponent upon the guitar (she packs a Hendrix-esque punch when so minded), she also has the voice of a dirty angel, sitting somewhere between Janis Joplin and Tina Turner. It’s that voice that draws you in, but it’s the blistering fret-board action that keeps you hooked and it’s hard to believe that a power trio are capable of filling so large a stage with quite so much noise. Introduced with a mixture of humour and bite, songs like ‘tried, tested and true’ sizzle on stage, whilst the ever-green ‘Diamonds in the dirt’ has lost none of its power. By the time Joanne concludes her set in a blaze of white-hot soloing, she has the audience eating out of her hand – no mean feat when you consider how partisan a Bonamassa crowd can be. She is a genuine talent, and it is only a matter of time before Joanne headlines stages such as this.
Nonetheless, with no disrespect intended toward Joanne, there is a sense of anticipation that descends upon the crowd as the stage is prepared for Joe’s arrival. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that this is the last night of a very special tour, but the atmosphere is even more charged than normal for a Bonamassa show and as he takes to the stage with the ‘Beck’s Bolero / Rice Pudding’, it’s all security can do to draw the crowd away from the stage and back to their seats. With people, somewhat reluctantly, seated, it’s amazing how much energy still flows through the crowd as Joe leads his band into Clapton’s ‘Mainline Florida and an energetic take on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Boogie with Stu’. It’s not just Joe, of course. Up on stage tonight are Anton Fig (legendary powerhouse drummer), Michael Rhodes (a lean, mean, bass monster who looks unassailably cool throughout the gig), the unflappable Reese Wynans (keys) and Russ Irwin (rhythm guitarist and keys). Clearly fired with the same passion for the material that burns within Joe, all four band members trade smiles and roam the stage with energy levels you’d expect from an act embarking on their first ever headline tour rather than the seasoned veterans they are. It’s infectious, and you can feel the audience responding to the band, as the entire gathering falls in thrall to the music.
As the night blazes by, it’s hard to keep track as Joe notches up the solos and delivers a performance that rarely catches its breath. Nonetheless, there are some stunning highlights to cherish. The harmonised guitars of ‘Motherless children’ (which, like ‘Mainline Florida’, hails from the classic ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’) are delivered with priceless authenticity by Joe and Russ, whilst another Clapton classic (this time from his Cream years) is delivered in the form of ‘SWLABR’. Two things strike home in this latter performance: the first is Joe’s humorous introduction in which he playfully asks for the audience’s help in deciphering the somewhat psychedelic lyrics; whilst the second is the remarkably crisp sound he coaxes out of his vintage, hollow-body Gibson 330. Close your eyes and you’re transported back to those halcyon days and, for many of the audience who never had the opportunity to see the short-lived Cream in the flesh, it is a sublime moment. For this author, however, it is the extended solo and near-perfect harmonies of Clapton’s ‘Pretending’ that steals the show. A cracking track from the excellent ‘Journeyman’ album, ‘Pretending’ has long been a personal favourite and to hear Joe and his band lay down the song with such glorious abandon is a once-in-a-lifetime moment and, from the roar that greets its conclusion, it’s clear that many others in the audience felt the same way.
The end of the set comes as even more of a surprise. With a wild look, Joe unexpectedly summons the entire audience to the front of the stage, a move which triggers a stampede, and suddenly we find ourselves in a heaving throng, just a few feet from the stage, as Joe lays into Led Zeppelin’s ‘How many more times’. Proof, as if any further were needed, that this is no ordinary Bonamassa show, the entire crowd is caught up in the raw, rock energy of the moment and the calls for an encore are painfully loud. Happily, Joe will not be satisfied until he has played one last song and, in a set of covers, only one song will do – the beautiful ‘sloe gin’, a song that has haunted audiences since Joe first laid it down on the album of the same name. Undimmed by familiarity, Joe plays the song with such feeling that there is not an audience member present who does not have goose bumps, and, in having the audience standing, Joe is able to coax a louder than usual chorus from the crowd. It’s a beautiful moment and, voices raised to the heavens, the show is bought to a close with band and audience as one. Few artists can exert such a pull over so large a crowd, and it is a magical moment.
There is nothing to compare to the excitement that comes from attending a concert that you know to be special from the outset. This could, so easily, have been just a covers gig, but that would not be Joe’s style. The blues has a long history of artists reinterpreting old standards in order to pay tribute to their forebears, and Joe brings these classic songs to life in a way that allows his long-held reverence of the music to shine forth. His solos are blistering, his vocals faultless and, behind him, one of the best blues bands ever to grace a stage. Surely not a person in the audience didn’t feel their heart miss a beat as the descending riff to ‘Sloe gin’ emerged from the PA whilst songs from Led Zeppelin and Cream are delivered with such elemental power that the audience were all but scanning the stage for sparks. An intimate performance in the most beautiful surroundings, this was a wonderful end to a truly special tour.