Of the eleven times in thirteen years that contemporary blues supremo Joe Bonamassa has played the prestigious Royal Albert Hall, tonight’s was up there with the best, memorable for all the right reasons.
Joe Bonamassa, Royal Albert Hall, London – 5 May 2022.
Words: Liz Medhurst
Photography: Steve Ritchie
As the theme to Welcome Back, Kotter heralded the commencement of proceedings, and we settled back into comfortable seats. The only Sweathogs in evidence tonight were the photographers in the cramped pit who were a tad overheated. Not that there was much settling to be done, this was a wild and dynamic ride through some of the best blues on the global circuit.
With two studio albums released since the last UK tour, there was speculation as to the nature of the setlist. Would it be more reflective, a musing on the passage of time like 2021’s Time Clocks? Or perhaps a sequel to the British Blues Explosion, following 2020’s Royal Tea, recorded at Abbey Road and featuring Bernie Marsden, Pete Brown and Jools Holland, and would there be special guests?
Here’s the thing, though. A Joe Bonamassa set on paper cannot ever come close to telling the story of what happens in the hall, with new arrangements, extended sections, and a unique vibe every tour. Likewise, it doesn’t matter which of the guitars from the now 400 strong Bona-seum come out to play. It’s what he does with them that counts.
And man did this count. The setlist was career-spanning, albeit only can ever be the merest snapshot of the fifteen albums and countless side projects and guest appearances. Old favourites were spruced up, such as Dust Bowl, which no longer conjured up parched plains but transformed into an oasis with many lush layers.
A relaxed and happy Joe treated us to a rollercoaster of styles and tempos, from the cheerily upbeat (My Conversation with Alice, I Didn’t Think She Would Do It) to the more sombre. Emotional depths were fathomed with an outstanding version of Midnight Blues, the Gary Moore cover first performed at the fellow guitarist’s tribute show a decade ago, now made absolutely his own. The feeling of devastation and melancholy cut right to the bone.
The centrepiece of the set was Pain and Sorrow, another track which pierced the heart with emotion. Full of heavy, dark overdriven riffs, verging into psychedelia at times, an exquisite journey with a triumphant crescendo to the end, bringing hope.
There’s simply so much going dynamically on with the tracks here, and even within a song, such as The Heart that Never Waits, where the volume and intensity went from oh so quiet caresses before breaking the spell and ramping everything up for the big finish.
Of course, none of this can happen without a decent band, and there was plenty of mutual appreciation and collaboration among this tight-knit group. The rhythm section of Greg Morrow and Steve Mackey provided the strongest of foundations, second guitarist Josh Smith complimented Joe’s style, and backing vocalists Jade MacRae and Dani De Andrea were on stunning form.
Gracing us with astonishing keyboards was Mr B3 himself, Reese Wynans, who stole the show a couple of times, coaxing purrs from the Hammond, mastering the groove, and especially raising the roof with a joyous piano solo during Lonely Boy. The studio version of this track features renowned boogie-woogie expert Jools Holland, and there are not many who can outplay him, but here Wynans made him look like a second choice.
Closing the main set with a blistering Ballad Of John Henry, complete with an astonishing Theremin interlude, the venue was on its feet with delight, then further mesmerised with the stunning encore of Woke Up Dreaming and Sloe Gin.
Soothed, stimulated, stirred and ultimately satisfied, we were released into the mild spring night, basking in the afterglow of a commanding performance by blues royalty.
Love Ain’t A Love Song
The Heart That Never Waits
I Didn’t Think She Would Do It
Just Cuz You Can
Pain and Sorrow
Conversation With Alice
Ballad of John Henry
Woke Up Dreaming