Sunday, March 5, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Blues of Desperation Tour (2017)

Joe Bonamassa - March 3, 2017 - Benedum Center

"The Guitar Event of the Year" may sound like promotional hyperbole - and with most acts, that would be the case - but when Joe Bonamassa is involved, it's nothing but the stone cold truth. I'd even go so far as to call it "the guitar event of your life", although I've now had four such events in my life (going back 11 years to 2006, when I saw Joe Bonamassa live for the first time), and I hope to have still more in the future.

This Train (om) Blues of Desperation
Mainline Florida (BB) Eric Clapton
Mountain Climbing (om) Blues of Desperation
Blues of Desperation (om) Blues of Desperation
No Good Place For The Lonely (om) Blues of Desperation
How Deep This River Runs (om) Blues of Desperation
Boogie With Stu (BB) Led Zeppelin
Never Make Your Move Too Soon (3K) B.B. King
Angel of Mercy (3K) Albert King
Love Ain't A Love Song (om) Different Shades of Blue
Dust Bowl (om) Dust Bowl
Little Girl (BB) John Mayall's Bluesbreakers
Pretending (BB) Eric Clapton
Black Winter/Django (BB) Led Zeppelin[-ish]
How Many More Times (BB) Led Zeppelin
Hummingbird (3K) B.B. King

(om) = original material, (3K) = Three Kings, (BB) = British Blues Explosion

I made a prediction for this concert. Judging from the trajectory of his career (and rumors that he was ejecting long-time staples such as Sloe Gin from his repertoire), I predicted that Joe would play nothing but original songs on this tour. In spite of the fact that he rose to prominence as a singularly talented cover artist, for his last couple of studio albums, Joe Bonamassa has dedicated himself solely to original compositions (with a little professional assistance). Presumably, if one is to play in the big leagues, one has to develop a songwriting craft, and not rely indefinitely on borrowing others' tunes (if we look at the history of The Rolling Stones, for example, we see a group that started out as a blues cover band, and only really hit it big when frontrunners Jagger and Richards decided to start writing their own tunes - and discovered they were pretty good at it). And if ever there was a time for Joe to take off the water wings (for better or worse), and see if he would sink or swim on the strength of his music alone, it seemed to me that this was the time.

But I was dead wrong. And I'm a little bit embarrassed, because I of all people should know Joe better than that. Leave it to him to eschew the traditional path to mainstream notoriety. I had forgotten one critical fact - Joe Bonamassa is not just a musician. He's also a music lover. And while a good half of the concert's setlist consists of original tunes - the vast majority of which hail from his latest studio album, Blues of Desperation - and none of them digging any further back than from the album Dust Bowl, I had underestimated the extent to which this tour would be an advertisement for Joe's other recent projects: the Three Kings and British Blues Explosion concept tours (featuring nothing but covers). The former has already been released under the title Live At The Greek Theatre (at least two of its highlights are represented here, including the encore, which was that show's climax). The latter is still on the way, explaining the fact that it brought all of the big surprises at this show, including the few songs I was not immediately able to identify.

In fairness, Joe played a good half of his latest album Blues of Desperation - and all the songs I'd have been most interested to hear (especially Mountain Climbing with its mean riff, and No Good Place For The Lonely with its off-the-hook outro solo). The show actually began with an audio recording of Muddy Waters playing Mean Old Frisco as the band took to the stage, before blasting into This Train, hinting back at Joe's other recent concept tour, Muddy Wolf, and emphasizing the fact that, basically - at its heart - the blues hasn't changed in the last 50+ years. It's just grown and evolved. The title track from Blues of Desperation sounded really good, as did How Deep This River Runs - leave it to a live performance (as ever) to enhance my appreciation for a song. I'm surprised Joe didn't play Drive - a mellower track, but one that I sense has been getting good press. I also would have expected to hear You Left Me Nothing But The Bill and the Blues and/or Livin' Easy, but I'm not disappointed, because what we did hear was probably even better.

I am, however, disappointed that I didn't get to hear either Oh Beautiful or Never Give All Your Heart - two of my favorite of Joe's more recent songs, from the preceding album, Different Shades of Blue - live and in person. I have to admit I'm surprised that he didn't play more tracks from that album, dragging out only Love Ain't A Love Song (albeit a popular one), while leaving off such songs as the title track, Living On The Moon, and I Gave Up Everything For You, 'Cept The Blues (all of which turned up on the recent Live At Radio City Music Hall album). Nor was there an acoustic set (not that I cried any tears over that development). The only other original tune Joe played - and the only song pre-dating 2014's Tour de Force - was the title track from Dust Bowl, which has received a bit of a makeover.

Clearly, I'm more of a thinker than a feeler - as I have an easier time analyzing the show than explaining how it made me feel. But what can I say? Joe Bonamassa is an amazing guitar player. I actually caught myself wondering a few songs into the show, is it possible to play a guitar solo in every song without it eventually getting stale? I guess that's a stupid thing for me to wonder, because I'm a huge guitar fan, and I could listen to an artist as talented as Joe play guitar for hours nonstop (and this show went for a full two plus hours from start to finish, without more than a minute or two's break before the encore). But a great show isn't just about the guitar (did I really just say that?) - it's also about the songs.

And the backing band. Joe's got a world class band backing him up - Anton Fig on drums, Michael Rhodes on bass, Reese Wynans on piano/organ. He's also got Lee Thornburg on trumpet, and Paulie Cerra on sax, plus Jade McRae and Juanita Tippins singing backup. The music veers a little more toward the horns and piano than I'd prefer, but that seems to be the direction Joe's going these days. When the band pulled out Never Make Your Move Too Soon (from the Three Kings tour - although Joe also previously recorded this song - in a slightly different arrangement - for his Had To Cry Today album), Joe left plenty of room for the band to shine, and I could just imagine B.B. King smiling down proudly from his lofty perch in blues heaven.

If pressed to choose a favorite song from this show, I'd be tempted to name Angel of Mercy, another remnant from the Three Kings tour. I noted when I listened to the recent Live At The Greek Theatre album that Joe has recycled the formerly-retired riff from A New Day Yesterday for this song, much to my delight. When he started playing it in concert, I recognized it, but couldn't quite place it, on account of it being such an old song in Joe's repertoire (that I hadn't heard live since the first time I saw him). But it came to me at the last minute before the first verse started, and for a brief moment, I thought that Joe was playing the first song of his that I ever heard, and the song that turned me into a lifelong fan. Alas, it was "only" Angel of Mercy (still a good song, though), but it was a thrill to hear nonetheless, as it's an incredible riff, and Joe plays it well. The song ended with an extended drum solo, so I think that Joe was intentionally channeling his earlier power trio days. Hats off to you, Joe, for not turning your back on your past, even if you have to cloak it in the vestiges of the ever-advancing present. (Isn't that just a metaphor for Joe's entire career?).

But there was more than one highlight that night - another one being the encore, Hummingbird, another song from the Three Kings tour (penned by Leon Russell and later recorded by B.B. King), which highlights the backup singers well. I didn't put two and two together at first, so much of the British Blues Explosion material threw me for a loop. I didn't recognize Mainline Florida (an Eric Clapton song), and though I heard Robert Plant singing in my head during Boogie With Stu, I naively presumed that Joe was covering an older song (Ooh, My Head/Soul?). I also recognized the lyrics from Little Girl, but couldn't place it as one of the 'b' tracks from the otherwise infamous "Beano" album by John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. (Some obscure choices for covers - but they sounded pretty good in concert, providing some lighter rock fare between Joe's heavier, bluesy numbers).

It wasn't until Joe started playing the Eric Clapton song Pretending - which I recognized from having spied the British Blues Explosion tracklist previously - that I figured out what was going on. Surprisingly, there didn't appear to be any representation from either Freddie King or Jeff Beck (both of which could have been accomplished in one blow if Joe had played the song Going Down, which I've heard he played the night before - alas), but there's only so much time in one night. The show's climax was a spectacular rendition of Led Zeppelin's How Many More Times - another song that muddies up the distinction between these artists and tours (what with Albert King's The Hunter mixed into that song; on a related note, did you know that Jimmy Page recorded a version of Hummingbird for the 1988 album Outrider? I'll bet you could write up a setlist that you could just as easily call a tribute to American Blues as British Rock!). Hailing from the band's first album, it fills the hole left in the concert setlist by the removal of Just Got Paid, during the extended solo of which Joe liked to throw in the guitar solo from Dazed and Confused.

But before Joe broke into the very recognizable riff from How Many More Times, he spent several minutes in one corner of the stage playing guitar furiously and nonstop, culminating in a run-through of the instrumental Django that he recorded for You & Me (which really sounds great, by the way), and would usually play in concert as an intro to either Just Got Paid or Mountain Time. Researching other setlists, it would appear that this extended intro is a track Joe (or his fans) has taken to calling "Black Winter" - mimicking Jimmy Page's White Summer/Black Mountain Side. I wouldn't have made the comparison from the song alone - I don't know how similar musically they are - but as an extended solo instrumental emphasizing the player's virtuosity, they serve an identical role.

You know, when Joe addressed the audience midway through the night, he told us he had a terrible cold and was pumped up on prescription meds, but honestly, if he hadn't said anything, I wouldn't have even noticed. It didn't detract from his playing at all. And he seemed to be enjoying himself, in spite of it, as the audience was, too - enthusiastically. I know I was. This time around, I had the opportunity to bring my brother back to see Joe again for his second time, and to introduce a new fan who is now begging me to see him again the next time he comes around. I know musical tastes can be very individual - which is why I really enjoy being able to share what has become my all-time favorite guitarist and musical act with other people. Keep doing what you do, Joe Bonamassa - I look forward to seeing what you'll come up with next. (More Peter Green and Ten Years After covers, hint hint!)

Friday, March 3, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - An Acoustic Evening At The Vienna Opera House (2013)

1-1. Arrival
1-2. Palm Trees, Helicopters And Gasoline
1-3. Jelly Roll
1-4. Dust Bowl
1-5. Around The Bend
1-6. Slow Train
1-7. Athens To Athens
1-8. From The Valley
1-9. The Ballad Of John Henry
1-10. Dislocated Boy
1-11. Driving Towards The Daylight
2-1. High Water Everywhere
2-2. Jockey Full Of Bourbon
2-3. Richmond
2-4. Stones In My Passway
2-5. Ball Peen Hammer
2-6. Black Lung Heartache
2-7. Mountain Time
2-8. Woke Up Dreaming
2-9. Sloe Gin
2-10. Seagull

Let me start with a disclaimer: I'm not really a huge fan of acoustic music. There are exceptions (I don't mind the occasional acoustic set to break things up, for example), but that's the general rule. So, if you want a fair review of this album, I welcome you to look elsewhere (I know how frustrating it can be to read somebody's review of something you like, when the reviewer doesn't like it). Still, I'm not going to say this is a bad album just because it doesn't tickle my fancy. Certainly, it's another in a long list of impressive feats - Joe proves his ability to captivate a crowd without relying on the screaming electric guitars he's built his reputation on. And, as typical of any consummate professional, these tunes (a mixture of covers and originals) reveal the melodic strength that lies at their core when stripped down to the bare essentials.

That having been said, one of my primary complaints about this concert (and, from an opposing perspective, one of its potential draws) is the fact that this is not so much Joe Bonamassa "Live and Unplugged" - alone, sitting in a chair with an acoustic guitar (which is something I could more readily get behind) - but Joe with a full acoustic band and a bevy of instruments (some not unlikely recycled from the Black Rock sessions), including a fiddle, banjo, mandolin, piano, accordion, harmonium(?), nycklharpa(!), mandola (apparently different from a mandolin), and lightweight, bongo-style percussion. The result may be a beautiful harmony of sound - something akin to a folk symphony - but I'll maintain that the most interesting tracks are not the traditionally acoustic numbers gathered together here, but the normally electrified ones that have been stripped back and played against type.

Take, for example, Slow Train - the slow-building electric powerhouse that has been expertly adapted to the acoustic instruments available. Or The Ballad of John Henry, an epic showstopper reduced to its folk blues roots. I must confess that this album is worth its price of admission alone for its haunting, acoustic version of Sloe Gin (easily the show's highlight even in acoustic form) - sparse, quiet, and without the usual wall of amplifiers behind which the human emotion sometimes drowns (although, in fairness, one of my favorite things is to hear musical instruments emote in place of the humans playing them). The usually soaring Mountain Time is decidedly less impressive in this context, however - reverting to the forgettable status it earned in its original studio incarnation on So, It's Like That. Dust Bowl, on the other hand, sounds great in acoustic form - owing to the strength of its melody and lyrics - as does Driving Towards The Daylight, an obvious inclusion on the setlist. Meanwhile, Dislocated Boy's adaptation to the acoustic format represents a decidedly more impressive transformation.

It is perhaps surprising to hear Jockey Full of Bourbon on this album, but the strong piano part makes it an appropriate choice, as is the Robert Johnson cover Stones In My Passway, reverted to acoustic form (although you won't mistake Joe Bonamassa for Robert Johnson any time soon). Ball Peen Hammer and High Water Everywhere - both previously heard in acoustic form on Live From Nowhere In Particular - put in a repeat appearance, but this album's version of Woke Up Dreaming is not as impressive as past versions, coming in at only five minutes. Some other older songs make a welcome appearance, including the show-opening Palm Trees, Helicopters, and Gasoline - an acoustic instrumental from You & Me - and the airy slide instrumental From The Valley, hailing from The Ballad of John Henry.

Expectedly, songs from Joe's mostly acoustic album, Sloe Gin, are to be heard in abundance. Aside from the aforementioned title track and Ball Peen Hammer, there is also Jelly Roll, the prettier version of Around The Bend (in contrast to the earlier version recorded for Had To Cry Today), Richmond (one of Joe's better traditionally acoustic songs - it has a bit of the feeling of Led Zeppelin's That's The Way), and the acoustic ballad credited to Bad Company, Seagull. I'm surprised there aren't more songs from Black Rock represented here (aside from Athens to Athens, which fits comfortably in this context - if sounding a bit "fiddly"). From Dust Bowl, the acoustic-leaning Black Lung Heartache (with its infectious chorus) also fits in with the night's theme well.

All told, this isn't necessarily the acoustic album I'd have wanted to hear, but then, I'm the last person whose opinion on acoustic albums should be considered (a fact that I humbly accept). It's one of the few Joe Bonamassa albums I consciously skipped - I avoided picking it up immediately when it came out - and only bought later to fill the glaring hole in my collection (I still need to pick up the DVD at some point - like Live From The Royal Albert Hall, I don't doubt that this would be a concert more fun to watch than just listen to). As such, it's not an album I listen to frequently. But it's worth hearing as a Joe Bonamassa fan; and you might like it a whole lot more if you don't share my bias against acoustic music. But in my case, I'd much rather put Joe's Tour de Force on the turntable for [yet] a[nother] spin. -_^

Rating: 💿 Rare Spin