DESPERADO JOE’S BONAFIDE BLUES COMMUNION
Royal Albert Hall. 25 April 2017
Sharp suited and sharp shooting rapid-fire blues licks from the very first beat, this was the third time that Joe has headlined this iconic venue and you could tell that he was going to make it count.
Words: Andy Rawll, Pictures: Laurence Harvey
Last year’s rapturously received tour ‘Salute to the British Blues Explosion’ had focused on songs by the Faustian trinity of Beck, Page and Clapton. This time around, there’s a new album of JoBo originals under the banner of ‘Blues Of Desperation’, of which a fine selection was unfurled during the first half of the show. Although the Jeff Beck songs from the 2016 tour have been jettisoned to make way for the new material, some of the other songs remained the same, in particular the Eric Clapton career bookends of ‘Little Girl’ from his early days with John Mayall and ‘Pretending’ from the later Armani years.
The locomotive power of opening track ‘The Train’ got the show on a roll in emphatic style, with Joe letting off steam with the searing tone of his vintage Strat enveloping Queen Victoria’s favourite venue. We were riding the Bonamassa Express and once we were in our seats, there was no stopping for refuelling, leaves on the line or red signals, as the band hurtled onto ‘Mainline Florida’. Fuelling the engine was badass bassist Michael Rhodes and dynamite drummer Anton Fig, who more than anyone ensured that the Flying Bluesman train kept on rolling down the track.
As with most of the cover versions tonight, they have been adapted to Joe’s sinewy blues-rock style. Whilst, this imbues the eclectic setlist with a cohesion that ensures that energy and momentum and maintained, on certain songs, like Zeppelin’s ‘Boogie For Stu’ it does somewhat suppress the inimitable character of the original.
Whereas, Joe’s earlier solo releases mixed covers and original songs, his own song-writing chops have evolved significantly, as evidenced by his last two releases consisting entirely of self-penned or co-written material, particularly those with acclaimed Nashville musician James House. Of the five new songs aired, ‘Blues Of Desperation’ had a fantastic free-form feel to it and ‘Good Place For The Lonely’ was a slow-burn highlight, especially when his gorgeous Goldtop was summoned to sing atop the Double Trouble choral organ swells of Reece Wynans. ‘How Deep This River Runs’ flowed beautifully with rippling guitars and swelled by the torrential backing vocals of Jade MacRae and the awesome Mahalia Barnes, who certainly lives up to the name that Jimmy and Jane gave her.
As a renown collector of vintage guitars, at times the gig felt like a six-string beauty pageant, with Joe parading the beautiful bodies and caressing the necks of exquisite examples of guitar-hood, from Firebirds to Flying Vs, and Les Pauls to Fender ‘Casters, Strat and Tele. Joe’s love of guitars appears to extend to his stage-wear, with a suit with the showroom gleam of a factory fresh Les Paul Custom and wood-brown shoes that appear to perfectly accessorise with the maple and mahogany necks of his harem of six-string mistresses.
The set was perfectly paced with plentiful light and shade between the tender balladry of ‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’ and the bombast of ‘How Many More Times’, yet it was very much a fully-plugged, solid-bodied set, even on the traditionally unplugged ‘Black Winter’ instrumental. I found this a little surprising as the much-anticipated all-acoustic ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’ video is confirmed for release on 23rd June 2017 and available for pre-order now.
This time around, there was no room for the familiar tonic of ‘Sloe Gin’ or ‘Ballad Of John Henry’, but neither were really missed, given that a dirty and gritty version of ‘Dust Bowl’ sated the audiences desire for one of his older solo tracks. Joe was back, packing a Strat for this one and yet again his desert-hot overdriven tube sound was superbly enhanced by the duelling horn-smithery of much-trumpeted Lee Thornburg and saxy Paulie Cerra.
The heavy-hitting home-run of Zeppelin’s ‘How Many More Times’ ramped up the response of the rammed venue a further few notches, bringing the audience to the feet for a final ringing endorsement of Joe Bonamassa’s undoubted mastery of the fretted form. His style may not be as mercurial as Gary Moore or his melodic mastery as keen as Eric Johnson, but he’s already earned a seat at the high-table of great blues-rock guitarists while still in his 30s, which is simply remarkable.
His dedication to his craft, his respect for the source code of the blues genre and his appetite to collaborate mark him out as an artist who will continue to, in the words of hasty philosopher Neil Peart, elevate him far above the norm.
Whereas his guitar playing is beyond reproach, his vocals perhaps have yet to reach their apotheosis. Over the last few years, they have acquired a wonderfully rich timbre, which combined with stunning effect with Glenn Hughes’ voice on the Black Communion albums and sound wonderful on the slower songs. Yet, on the louder songs, the vocal tone is great, but there’s a lack of articulation of the lyrics, which means that at times, although it sounded superb, it was hard to follow the lyrics, even though it was very clear that he most definitely woke up this morning and has still got the blues.
In deference to the now departed great BB King, whose last UK show was on the same stage in 2011, the sole encore to tonight’s electric storm of blues guitar was a raucous yet reverential cover of ‘Hummingbird’, the Leon Russell song, which King popularised and which one of our English Kings of Guitar, Jimmy Page, so memory covered (with Chris Farlowe) on his ‘Outrider’ album.
Overall, this was a bonafide explosion of contemporary blues, which blitzed the cavernous expanse of this iconic venue. With the 10th anniversary of his first headline show at the venue, Joe confirmed that a celebratory show in 2019 had already been booked. Now that’s forward planning and perhaps also an indication, that he may well be busy with the reunited Black Country Communion, who’s fabled fourth album is earmarked for release later this year. Very, very good news indeed.
Blues Of Desperation
No Good Place For The Lonely
How Deep This River Runs
Boogie With Stu
Never Make Your Move Too Soon
Angel Of Mercy
Love Ain’t A Love Song
How Many More Times