Saturday, January 11, 2014

Joe Bonamassa - Tour de Force - Live in London (2013)

A few years ago, Joe Bonamassa had the privilege of being able to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, a highly esteemed concert hall in London. He had been chugging along like a tank engine for the better part of a decade, touring relentlessly, and building up a loyal fanbase by word of mouth. The Royal Albert Hall show was a milestone, and it served to demonstrate to Joe as much as his fans and the rest of the world, that he had made it. So then the question that remained was, what was he going to do next? The answer is: pull off the most ambitious touring week of his life (and that's saying something for this workaholic).

In 2013, Joe Bonamassa made rock history with his Tour de Force, in which he played four different shows on four different nights at four different venues in London, with four different bands and four different setlists. It was in essence a retrospective of his career, tracking his rise to success through larger and larger venues, and an opportunity to perform a mixture of old and never-before-played-live songs on the stage alongside his contemporary material. And all four shows are available now on DVD - although I recommend the box set, which is shaped like a Marshall half stack (so cool!), and includes a mini tour book with lots of glossy photos. Press releases are calling it the guitar event of the year, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be the guitar event of the decade!

Night 1 - The Borderline (Power Trio Night)

Of all four nights, I was most looking forward to the power trio night, not because I necessarily thought it would be the best, but because it's the most removed from the kind of shows Joe's been playing recently, and also because it recalls the kind of small club shows Joe was playing about a decade ago, around the time I first discovered him and became interested in his music. And the first night definitely recalls the early concert DVDs A New Day Yesterday Live and Live At Rockpalast - although, unfortunately, Joe did not play A New Day Yesterday, which was the song that singularly made me a fan.

But he did play Blues Deluxe and The River/Burning Hell, which were some of my other favorites from that period of his career. And I was also ecstatic to hear Joe do a live version of Pain And Sorrow from his under-appreciated second album So, It's Like That (which was his most "straight rock" album), which I don't believe he's ever played live before, and is one of my top favorite of his early songs. He also played Miss You, Hate You, which was the closest thing to a "hit" Joe has ever had (before he broke away from the mainstream music industry paradigm). And Jeff Beck's Spanish Boots sounded very good in this context, as did Joe's own Story of a Quarryman.

Night 2 - Shepherd's Bush Empire (Blues Night)

For the blues night, Joe augmented the guitar/bass/drums format to add a keyboard player and a three-piece horn section. Although I don't share Joe's enthusiasm for horns in the blues, their performance was for the most part tasteful and restrained, and in a lot of cases genuinely contributed to the songs performed. Highlights of the night include a fantastic version of Gary Moore's Midnight Blues, and an emotional rendition of The Great Flood that caught me completely by surprise and reduced me - honest to god! - to tears (so appropriate for the blues night). I was also very excited to hear Joe perform Chains & Things, which is one of my top favorite lesser known B.B. King tracks.

Seeing Joe go from the club show to this larger theater (and consecutively larger venues on the third and fourth nights) - where we're used to seeing him these days - really emphasizes how much Joe benefits from the extra space (both for larger crowds, and more room for his sound to breathe) and sophistication these upscale venues provide him. The old recordings he's done are still good, and I don't think Joe can match the hungry energy he had back then; he's a different player now - more mature - but he's playing better than ever, and his singing and songwriting have both improved considerably. He's come a long way, and I feel that he's right where he belongs now (although he could always use more recognition). I'm glad he's been able to make it here.

Night 3 - Hammersmith Apollo (Rock Night)

For the rock night at the historic Hammersmith Apollo, Joe stuck with the basic four piece rock band (guitar/bass/drums/keyboard), keeping the same players as the previous night (without the horns), while adding an extra percussionist, and bringing in Doug Henthorn to sing backup (and the lead on Tea For One). I was surprised to discover that the show opened with an acoustic set, but then I remembered that many of the great rock concerts of the '70s included an acoustic set. It's just as well, because it serves to break up Joe's setlist and add a little variety. I noticed that during the blues night, the band kind of alternated between uptempo and slow songs, so the acoustic set was a fitting counterpoint to a night of high-energy rockers. The highlight of that set was Woke Up Dreaming, the song in which Joe tries to see just how fast he can play his guitar.

The rest of the night was chock full of great rock performances. Joe pulled out a doubleneck guitar for Dislocated Boy, which featured a fierce keyboard solo. Dust Bowl also sounded very nice. It's gratifying to notice that Joe has a lot of original songs that are strong enough to showcase in his setlist, even if the most exciting moments of the night came during cover songs. On Tea For One, guest vocalist Doug Henthorn (who also sang on the record) put in a rousing performance, giving Joe enough space to channel Jimmy Page on the endlessly liquid leads. Sloe Gin and Just Got Paid, both part of the encore, are guaranteed crowd pleasers, and were performed excellently. This night also saw the first repeated songs of the tour, in the form of Lonesome Road Blues and The Ballad of John Henry (the latter of which, a song with a killer groove that I feel epitomizes Joe as a musician, is the only song with the distinction of being played on three of the four nights of this special tour).

Night 4 - Royal Albert Hall (Acoustic/Electric Night)

The final night of the Tour de Force begins with another acoustic set, this time with Joe's band from the An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House live album. The electric part of the night turns out to be a bit of an amalgam of the previous three shows, with all of the musicians Joe's played with on the tour being featured (minus the horn section) at various points. It kind of emphasizes the fact that this isn't really four bands playing four setlists, but more like two and a half bands (with some small adjustments) playing three and a half setlists. But that's fine. The setlist for night four borrows much from the blues and rock nights - so, in essence, it's pretty similar to a typical Joe show.

But this is Joe Bonamassa at the Royal Albert Hall, on the tail end of his Tour de Force. And he's much more confident than the last time he played there. In lieu of guest musicians this time around, Joe brings some guest guitars to play on, including Rory Gallagher, Bernie Marsden, and Peter Green/Gary Moore's guitars. The standout track is probably Django/Mountain Time, which has become a live staple for Joe. That song is amazing - most of the songs serve as vehicles for Joe's talent, but this one manages to become something more, with a life force all its own. The rest of the highlights were more or less repeats of moments from the last two nights, including Midnight Blues, The Ballad of John Henry, and the explosive encore consisting of Sloe Gin and Just Got Paid.

Bonus Features

Included with the DVDs is a fascinating four part documentary. Through a series of interviews, the documentary examines the genesis and execution of the ambitious Tour de Force project, and also delves deeper into Joe's history and explores the formula that got him where he is today. (Apparently, in addition to talent and hard work, it takes creativity, confidence, and a willingness to take risks in order to make it big). The documentary also shines welcome light on the least public member of the triumvirate responsible for Joe's success. Aside from Joe himself, and his record producer/creative collaborator Kevin Shirley (who has worked with big name bands like Led Zeppelin, Rush, Iron Maiden, Journey, Dream Theater, Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, and Silvertide!), the documentary introduces manager Roy Weisman, who is the "R" to Joe's "J" in their homebrew company J&R Adventures.

It's an insightful and affirming look at the scaffolding behind Joe's public career, and it's highly recommended viewing for fans of Joe Bonamassa, people currently involved in the music industry, or really just anyone who harbors the ambition to pursue their dreams and passions in a world suffering from a rigid, cookie-cutter mentality. Other bonus features include slideshow photo galleries, and a look behind the scenes of each of the four concerts. I couldn't possibly imagine what's next for Joe, and I don't expect him to ever top this extravaganza. But I know that he will continue creating interesting music, and putting on amazing performances for his fans, and I'm looking forward to hearing the next solo album he releases. But no rush, Joe - you've earned yourself a rest!


  1. Sounds really cool. I like when artists do these kinds of themed gigs, adds an extra level of craft to setmaking, which is something that interests me to begin with. Joe seems a little young to be this retrospective already, but I guess he's sure had a heck of a lucrative career and might as well do this stuff at the peak of his powers!

  2. Although pulling it off took a lot of work, the idea came pretty spontaneously as I understand it. They had booked these four shows in London at these four venues, and then over Thai one day they were chatting, and I believe it was Kevin Shirley who came up with the idea of the different bands and different setlists chronicling the phases of Joe's career and his rise to recognition. To his credit, Joe rose (admirably and not atypically) to the challenge.