The last time SonicAbuse caught Joe Bonamassa in concert was his astonishing tribute to the masters of British Blues (check out the review here) at Newark. Despite taking place soon after the release of the awe-inspiring ‘Blues of Desperation’ album, the tour had a specific theme and thus did not offer any tracks off that blistering record. Whilst that does not stand in any way to the detriment of a night that truly was magical, we were more than a little excited to catch Joe on this latest tour which offers up no fewer than five of the album’s eleven tracks alongside a collection of covers and classic cuts all of which see Joe continue to stand at the forefront of the modern blues scene.
Backed by a dream band of world-class musicians – Michael Rhodes on bass, Anton Fig on drums, Reese Wynans on Keyboards, the redoubtable Lee Thornburg on Trumpet, Paulie Cerra on Sax as well as Jade Macrae and Mahalia Barnes on backing vocals – Joe Bonamassa is in full-on rock god mode tonight. Resplendent in a pink suit, Joe is dressed sharp and his playing is sharper still. Armed with his impressive collection of vintage guitars, his sole mission seems to be to reduce the hulking interior of the Sheffield Arena to rubble. It’s hard to believe that so mild mannered an artist can so effectively stand at the centre of such a seismic performance and yet there Joe is, in the eye of the hurricane, unleashing riffs that raise the spirit of Led Zeppelin and sending it staggering through the venue bruised and shell-shocked in the face of so glorious a six-string attack.
Frontloading the set with ‘Blues of desperation’ tracks is a smart move, not least because the album has one of the most jaw-on-the-floor opening couplets of any blues album of recent years. ‘This train’, with its immensely powerful sense of rhythm gets the heaving Sheffield Arena tapping and nodding as one before Anton Fig’s explosive drums announce the arrival of ‘Mountain Climbing’, a heart-stopping hard blues that makes even Joe’s epic rendering of Freddie King staple ‘going down’ duck and run for cover. Joe’s performance is electrifying and his searing stage presence makes you realise how audiences must have felt when the saw Clapton for the first time. ‘Bonamassa is God’ grafitti on the walls? you’d better believe it! Meanwhile, whilst the album had two drummers providing the propulsive rhythmic backdrop that drives the track, Anton Fig makes sure that the absence of a second player is not missed with a performance that shakes the very foundations of the building. The man’s a rhythmic powerhouse and his playing is just the backbone that Joe needs when giving such a performance. The album’s title track swiftly follows with its Eastern motifs and Floydian guitar work giving way to some crunchy hard rock riffs, provoking a contact high in those edging too close to the stage. The first song to nudge the tone in a more traditional blues direction, ‘no good place for the lonely’ is a gorgeous showcase for Joe’s more Moore-esque guitar work before the new material climaxes with the gorgeous and emotive ‘How deep this river runs’. What an opening to a show! With a back catalogue already stuffed with riches, it’s hard to believe that a single album could provide such a start and yet the songs here are presented with such vitality that it sets the blood surging though the veins.
A change of tack next as Joe takes us back to his roots next with a series of typically well-chosen covers kicking off with ‘Boogie with Stu’ before dipping into material from his recent ‘Three Kings’ set – ‘Never make your move too soon’ (B.B. King) and ‘Angel of Mercy’ (Freddie King). A bristling drum solo allows both a pause for breath and an impressive display of Anton’s technical ability before we’re then treated to two stone-cold Joe classics – an extended ‘Love ain’t a love song’ (complete with magical solo) from ‘Different Shades of Blue’ and the eponymous ‘Dust Bowl’, recast as a Miles Davis-infused jazz number. A firm favourite of mine, it’s a pleasure to see Joe reinvent the track, avoiding the inevitable contempt of familiarity and keeping the music as fresh and exciting as the first time the audience heard it.
Hurtling towards the finale (and let’s face it, Joe Bonamassa shows always hurtle), more well-placed covers emerge harking back to last year’s British Blues Shows. ‘Little Girl’ (John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers) remains a treasure, but what really sends the audience into overdrive is a pulverising take on Freddie King staple ‘going down’ which sees Joe and the normally Zen-like Michael Rhodes get totally lost in the moment, the latter throwing shapes like the bass monster he truly is. Once again, Joe demonstrates a rare ability to walk that fine line between a respectful cover and a personal interpretation, with the result that the euphoria that greets the track is all Bonamassa. ‘Black Winter / Django’ heads into another crackling Led Zeppelin cover, ‘How many more times’, highlighting just how heroically rock Joe’s current frame of mind is before all that’s left is the sweet encore of ‘Hummingbird’ (B.B King), which serves as a gentle come down to the night and the audience are left to wander out into the cold night air, some waxing lyrical about the show, but most too shell shocked to do more than just shake their heads in wonder at it all. Amazingly Joe seems to have that effect even on people who have caught him on stage before, a fact which says much for the fire with which he plays.
There are few artists I’ve seen multiple times outside of a festival environment and even fewer who seem to get better with every performance. Joe Bonamassa, however, is a genuine phenomenon and his shows are not to be missed. This is a true artist whose musical evolution is taking place in full view of his fans and every step moves him closer to the status of a true legend, one whose long shadow will inspire and motivate for generations to come. A true showman, he clearly loves his art and his interaction with band and fans is always a pleasure to witness. The incomparable musicians who have elected to work with Joe all bring their own unique talents to the environment and although Joe is the star, he never forgets (or lets the audiences forget) just how remarkable they all are and that sense of camaraderie only adds to the deep joy that comes with a Bonamassa performance. Yet another unforgettable night then, and, at last, a chance to see a selection of tracks from one of last year’s best albums, Joe Bonamassa rocked Sheffield arena to the ground… who could ask for more? 10