Monday, March 28, 2011

Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl Tour (2011)

I saw Joe Bonamassa live for the third time tonight. He's really on top of his game, and only growing more impressive year by year - both on his records, and on stage.

It's kind of funny, when Joe took to the stage at 8pm sharp (sharply dressed and right on time - a rarity among rock acts), my experience playing at bars lately interceded and instead of hearing the waking of the guitar and thinking, "it's concert time", I felt like I was back at the bar, and somebody I knew and hung out with was about to perform. So that when Joe started playing, I almost felt like the gap between him as a worldwide superstar (on a relative scale) and me as a lowly amateur wasn't so big after all. Of course, getting up on stage and starting to play is a familiar enough experience for me, but the quality of music Joe and his band puts out is way beyond my capabilities.

The concert had a nice mix of songs from throughout Joe's now decade-long career, reaching even back to his first solo album A New Day Yesterday. It was a nice homage to his earlier days opening the show with Cradle Rock, and I was thrilled when he pulled out the slow blues If Heartaches Were Nickels early in the evening - one of my first favorites of Joe's recorded songs, years ago when I was first discovering him, and he was first making a name for himself as a solo artist. I was also surprised to hear the title track from his second album, So It's Like That.

The second song in the setlist was one of my more recent favorites - So Many Roads - a song that Peter Green recorded with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in the sixties, and Joe covered on his You And Me album. It's a great slow blues with lots of emotion, and it kicks off with a great-sounding and immediately recognizable lick.

Joe visited his latest album, just released this past week, during the second quarter of the set list. He played the first two tracks from the album in order, followed by You Better Watch Yourself. Slow Train sounded fantastic live, and they managed to duplicate the instrumental train sounds on the record right there on stage, mostly with the guitar and drums. It was great how they started up, ever so slowly, it really sounded like a train from the old west slowly firing up for a long haul across the plains. Dust Bowl, the title track from the album also sounded really good live.

The first half of the setlist ended with Sloe Gin, one of Joe's more recent show setpieces. The drummer and bassist left the stage while the keyboard player played the chords for the song behind Joe's soulful extended intro on guitar. The rest of the band eventually returned to the stage to continue the song. The only disappointment I had tonight was that Joe didn't find a way to weave No Love On The Street (from Dust Bowl, and also a song Tim Curry recorded, just like Sloe Gin) into the coda of the song or something. I think that would sound really good. But, alas.

After Sloe Gin, Joe stopped long enough to greet the crowd, halfway through the show. He mentioned that this was the last show on the American leg of the tour (I didn't know that - exciting!). He also talked about his history in Pittsburgh, and how he worked his way up from playing Moondog's, to Rex Theatre (where I saw him my first time), then over to the Palace Theatre in Greensburg (which I missed cuz it was kinda out of the way), and now, finally, he's made it to Carnegie Hall. Which is fitting, given that it kind of parallels his recent show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Of course, our hall is a lot smaller, but still a very nice place - with beautiful architecture.

The second half of the setlist featured something of a miniset from The Ballad of John Henry. Joe started off by introducing the title track, saying that he had received a call from England informing him that it was the #10 best rock riff of the decade. It's a really good riff, and definitely deserves the award. When Joe played The Great Flood, which is another slow blues number, I noted that it was very reminiscent of If Heartaches Were Nickels, though a bit tighter and fresher, given that it's a more recent (and more original, I suspect) song for Joe.

It just goes to show, Joe plays a lot of the same types of songs, but he just gets better and better at writing them and performing them over the years. I used to think it was sad that he doesn't do A New Day Yesterday live anymore (or in such a truncated form), seeing as it's such a kickass song, the way he does it, and that it's the one song that ignited my appreciation for Joe years ago. But I don't think it's that sad anymore, because the songs he's playing now are so good, there's no room to be left wanting. And anyway, the newer songs have that freshness of life I mentioned, where I imagine the older songs, unless constantly shuffled and renewed, might get a bit stale after awhile. On the other hand, it's great that Joe digs back through his catalog and keeps a few of the old ones around. He's got so many good ones.

One song that completely took me by surprise was a cover of Young Man's Blues, which I don't think I'd heard (or heard of) Joe doing before. It didn't have quite the swing of The Who's version, but it was very fun, with lots of stops and starts, and you could tell the band (as well as the crowd) was enjoying it.

When the entire band, minus Joe, left the stage for the sole acoustic number, I noted how everyone but Joe had taken at least one break during the performance. I'm willing to believe that Joe is the hardest working musician in the industry. His stage show has even grown to a solid two and a half hours, where previously I remember him making excuses for cutting off after about an hour and a half. There wasn't even an opening act - and he didn't need one. The acoustic number he did was his old favorite - Woke Up Dreaming - which is a real show-off piece. It's truly impressive what he pulls off in that song, and he took his time putting flourishes into it. This is acoustic music on speed.

The final song of the regular setlist was the consistently inspiring Mountain Time, which is a song that has really come into its own over the years. I remember not thinking all that much of it when I first heard it on Joe's second album, So It's Like That, but he's turned it into such a riveting show-stopper in his live sets that it refuses to be ignored (hear the version on Live From Nowhere In Particular, for example). I do remember that when I drove out to the desert a few summers ago, I was driving "west on 80", which is a line from the song, and I had that song going through my head the entire cross-country trip!

We got two songs for an encore, first the Leonard Cohen cover Bird on a Wire, which Joe recorded for Black Rock, his last album before Dust Bowl. Not personally one of my favorites, as it's kinda more laidback and 'sweet' a song, but it sounded really good live with the heavy electric treatment coming in later in the song. But the final number was the one I was waiting the whole show to hear - Joe's rendition of Just Got Paid, with the Led Zeppelin solo break in the middle. Great, epic song to close the show with. Although, with the amount of talent displayed throughout the night, I can't even say that it was the best song performed. I'd be hard-pressed to even pick a favorite, because the musical consistency was so solid.

And one thing I'll note about Joe's audiences. I imagine they're getting bigger (as well they should), though they're still no match for what those stadium bands have. But when you go to a Joe show, it's clear that the people there are all huge fans, and in the case of a guitar virtuoso like Joe, many of them are musicians themselves. It's a very different kind of crowd, and much more appreciative, than the drunken buffoons you might get at a, say, Tom Petty show, for example. No disrespect to Tom - I love him - but you can't argue about the crowds, which include lots of people who are there just to get blasted and have a party with some good songs they know from the radio performed live to enhance the atmosphere. But at a Joe show, those people are there to appreciate the music that's being played. And it's a testament to the kind of musician Joe is. Here's to many more years, and much more success, for the man deserves it as much as anyone (and more than quite a few).


cradle rock [a new day yesterday]
so many roads [you and me]
when the fire hits the sea [black rock]
so, it's like that [so, it's like that]
if heartaches were nickels [a new day yesterday]
slow train [dust bowl]
dust bowl [dust bowl]
you better watch yourself [dust bowl]
sloe gin [sloe gin]

the ballad of john henry [the ballad of john henry]
lonesome road blues [the ballad of john henry]
happier times [the ballad of john henry]
steal your heart away [black rock]
the great flood [the ballad of john henry]
young man's blues
woke up dreaming (acoustic) [blues deluxe]
mountain time [so, it's like that]

bird on a wire [black rock]
just got paid [live from nowhere in particular]

Whew, I'm tired! Until next time, Joe. I'm really excited about your new band project, Black Country Communion. I would love to see the band perform live. Please tell me you've got plans to tour America soon! Can't wait to hear your second album, which I've heard is coming out soon!

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