It is easy to dismiss yet another Joe Bonamassa live release given the sheer volume of material he has put out of late. However, as has been noted elsewhere on these pages, Joe Bonamassa gigs are all uniquely realised events with their own special character and, in that sense, every live set from Joe is as special as a full-blown studio album release from any other artist. With a career that just seems to move from high point to high point, this particular release still manages to top that which has gone before as it captures Joe playing the venerable Carnegie Hall. An artist incapable of allowing such an opportunity to pass without endeavouring to eclipse his previous achievements, Joe put together an acoustic set that proves, as if any further proof were needed, that he is the leading blues man of his generation. It is fortuitous indeed, then, that it was captured in all its glory and is now set for release across a variety of formats.
Like previous concert releases, ‘Live at Carnegie hall’ is available in multiple configurations. For those interested in the audio only, the album comes as a double CD or a triple vinyl (beautifully packaged, it appears, in a triple gatefold sleeve). We don’t have access to the vinyl, alas, but the CD version is, as we have come to expect from Joe Bonamassa, crisply recorded and it renders the evening with considerable clarity and detail.
For those who prefer to see Joe’s events (and they always are worth watching), or who simply want to have the audio in surround sound, the concert is also available as a 2-disc DVD or single Blu Ray. Our review copy is the 2-disc DVD version and, as with all of Joe’s releases, it contains the concert only on disc 1 (thus maximising the amount of space available) with the special features placed separately on disc 2. The DVD offers up two options for the audio – PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 surround and, as you can imagine from a show that lists Kevin Shirley as its producer, the audio is absolutely top notch. The surround sound version largely keeps the music in the front speakers, utilising the rears for ambience and audience, and it brings the show to life in your living room. Each and every Joe Bonamassa release has shown similar attention to detail and it is pleasing to report, particularly given the nuanced nature of the music on offer, that this latest release maintains the same high standard to which Joe subjects all of his releases. Similarly, the video, shot in high definition, squeezes every ounce of performance out of the DVD format and the image is crystal clear and well balanced.
Gathering together a stellar cast of performers, Joe Bonamassa was joined for this most special evening by Cellist / Erhuist Tina Guo, pianist Reese Wynans, drummer Anton Fig, multi-instrumentalist Eric Bazilian, percussionist and composer Hossam Ramzy and a trio of backing singers Juanita Tippins, Gary Pinto and Mahalia Barnes. It’s an eclectic mix of musicians, truly multi-cultural in nature, and the result is an acoustic set that revels in the unexpected. Even familiar songs gain an unfamiliar edge in this setting with the one constant being the energy and musicality that Joe Bonamassa brings to all his performances. Thus, as the band take to the stage to thunderous applause, ‘this train’ is delivered as a rolling blues that initially defies recognition before settling into the groove that so entranced on record. With a stage set that nestles comfortably at the centre of the venue’s cavernous stage, Joe never once loses that unassailable cool despite the legendary nature of the venue and the opening song sets the tone for an evening of quite exceptional delights. The pace is slowed for ‘drive’, a song that was hauntingly atmospheric in its studio incarnation and which takes on new life here with Tina’s mesmerising work on the Erhu. Her performance throughout the show is never less than scintillating and it says much of Joe’s generosity as a performer that he positively delights in the accomplishments of those around him, never trying to overshadow their contribution to his works. The result is that his shows are truly collaborative and unique to the people who are in Joe’s band at any given time. Still sticking with recent album ‘blues of desperation’, Joe leads his band into ‘the valley runs low’, a track that retains the late-night bluesy charm of the original sweetened just a touch by the glorious backing vocals of Juanita, Gary and Mahalia. A long-time favourite, ‘dust bowl’ is rendered even more arid with gentle percussion and subtle strings all building towards that chorus. Equally elegant is ‘driving towards the daylight’, a beautifully emotive song that never fails to stir the senses with its exquisite melody. Joe breaks out his slide for a riveting ‘black lung heartache’, a tune that will have even the most hardened cynic stomping their feet in delight, whilst ‘blue and evil’ benefits, once again, from the backing vocals which add depth and sparkle to the piece.
Things take a jazzy turn on ‘Livin’ easy’ and Eric’s sensual saxophone really comes to the fore here, before ‘get back my tomorrow’ emerges with a sweet groove. Offering backing singer Gary Pinto the chance to shine, the track is kept lively by the banjo work of Eric and the taut beat of sticks-man extraordinaire Anton Fig. It never fails to amaze just how sympathetic the atmosphere is on a Joe Bonamassa stage, with each musician given a chance to shine at various points throughout the evening, and the way that each of these musicians (each a legend in their own field) demonstrates just how powerful an art form music can be when the ego is subjugated in service of the song. Following on from the band introductions, in which a clearly ecstatic Joe informs the audience that his family are there to witness the occasion, a gentle ‘Mountain time’ leads nicely into a singalong ‘how can a poor man stand such times and live?’. What follows is a real treat. A highlight from Joe’s first tenure in Black Country Communion (now happily reunited), ‘Song of yesterday’ has a melody to die for, given additional richness by Tina and Eric who really draw out the mystical undercurrents in the music. Given a huge boost by the energetic performances of Reese, Anton and the backing trio in particular, it’s a concert highlight and the energy on stage positively crackles as Joe leads the band into the chorus. In a display that will have home audiences slack jawed in disbelief, ‘Woke up dreaming’ (surely the subtext for the whole concert) sees Joe and Tina go head to head in a brief, spectacular display of virtuoso musicianship that is utterly remarkable. Tina, clearly lost in the power of the music, matches Joe every step of the way, her vibrant playing the perfect foil to Joe’s rapid-fire strumming. The show reaches its end (an hour and a half has passed already? Really?) as Joe brings out a wonderfully climactic ‘Hummingbird’ which builds and builds to a climax that is so rich in melody and alive with feeling that it’s hard to keep the emotions at bay even at the remove of watching at home, and you can only imagine how it must have been to have been to be there on the night. The roars of the crowd say it all and it’s difficult to resist the urge to join them in a standing ovation. Happily, Joe returns for one more song, ‘the rose’, a quiet, calming finale to a show that packs in far more energy than most electric performances.
Directed by Philippe Klose, who also bought life to Joe’s similarly-themed ‘an acoustic evening at the Vienna Opera House’ (and who was also involved in the ‘drive’ music video and Black Country Communion’s ‘Live over Europe’ film), ‘Live at Carnegie’ hall is a beautifully filmed and edited concert piece that once again demonstrates that you cannot take a single Joe Bonamassa performance for granted. Where, for most artists, an acoustic show means little more than switching off the amps, for Joe it is an opportunity to explore his rich back catalogue from a whole new angle and, just like the Vienna show, what transpires is nothing short of magical. It raises the show from the ’desirable’ category in which, let’s face it, most live albums reside, to the essential and it demonstrates once again that Joe Bonamassa is a true artist, never content to rest upon his laurels. Quite where one goes after Carnegie Hall is something of a mystery, but knowing Joe, he’ll find somewhere even grander for his next venture… I, for one, can’t wait. 10