Monday, July 11, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Tour de Force (Abridged)

Since the cat is now out of the bag with respect to my ongoing chronicle of Joe Bonamassa's greatest hits, I figured it'd be a good idea to document my compilation of live tracks from Joe's phenomenal Tour de Force, which I put together a couple of years ago when those live albums/DVDs came out. As a bit of a preface, Joe's always been a hardy touring musician, but lately, with encouragement from record producer and creative collaborator Kevin "Caveman" Shirley (who has worked on records since the '90s by such high-profile bands as Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Journey, and more, and was also Silvertide's producer), he's done some spectacular themed live concerts.

As an example, there's one scheduled for this very month, in which Joe plans to honor three of the seminal legends of the British Blues explosion - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. (I'm looking forward to that CD/DVD)! I actually have yet another disc of greatest hits planned to honor Joe's Muddy Wolf (= Muddy Waters + Howlin' Wolf) and 3 Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie) tributes (I'm going to call it "Legends of the Blues"), but the one thing currently holding that up is that the 3 Kings concert has yet to be released due to (I hear) a petty complaint from Freddie King's estate (here's to hoping they get that settled, one way or another).

For the Tour de Force, Joe was tasked with performing on four separate nights at four separate classic venues in London, with four separate bands and four separate setlists. (Realistically, there was a little bit of overlap in bands and setlists, especially on the last two nights, but that was inevitable). On the first night, Joe dived back into his early years with a power trio approach at The Borderline club, which was a small affair. Then he put together a horn section for a blues-themed night at the larger Shepherd's Bush Empire. On the third night, he did a straight-up rock show at the legendary Hammersmith Apollo. And on the final night, Joe made his triumphant return to the Royal Albert Hall, with a half acoustic, half electric set.

It should go without saying that I was extremely excited when I heard about this special tour event in 2013. I waited with bated breath for the eventual release of the DVD (because as exciting as that would be, I'm not in any position to spend thousands of dollars to fly across the Atlantic for a concert). The concept of the tour was thrilling enough, but let me tell you, Joe was on fire all four nights. I easily rate it one of the live highlights of his career. I have no doubt that he was nervous, but with his talent, and the consummate professional that he is, he used that to his advantage and poured all of his energy into the music.

I couldn't even wait for the later CD release - I confess that I ripped the audio from the DVDs and started putting together a "best of" abridged version of the tour right away, which I only finalized when the CD came out and I was able to get my hands on the official audio. Each of the four concerts was a two-disc affair, so we're talking about distilling eight discs of high quality material. Needless to say, I ended up with not one but two discs of music. I call them the 'A' and 'B' sets, because each one could potentially stand alone (they both contain songs from all four nights), but I put the best songs on the first disc, and the only slightly less best songs on the second. Here's what I picked:

Joe Bonamassa - Tour de Force (Abridged)

'A' Set

1. Blues Deluxe               {8:38} [Borderline]
2. Pain And Sorrow            {7:54} [Borderline]
3. Midnight Blues             {8:38} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
4. Chains & Things            {7:36} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
5. The Great Flood           {10:17} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
6. Tea For One                {9:43} [Hammersmith Apollo]
7. Sloe Gin                   {8:59} [Hammersmith Apollo]
8. The Ballad of John Henry  {13:13} [Royal Albert Hall]
                      Total: {74:58}

'B' Set

1. The River                  {6:57} [Borderline]
2. Happier Times              {7:53} [Borderline]
3. So Many Roads              {6:25} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
4. Slow Train                 {6:45} [Shepherd's Bush Empire]
5. Dust Bowl                  {7:12} [Royal Albert Hall]
6. Dislocated Boy             {9:52} [Hammersmith Apollo]
7. Lonesome Road Blues        {4:57} [Hammersmith Apollo]
8. Just Got Paid             {12:25} [Hammersmith Apollo]
9. Django/Mountain Time      {11:44} [Royal Albert Hall]
                      Total: {74:10}

For those of you keeping track at home, here's a reminder of what each of the four nights were:

1st Night: Borderline = Power Trio
2nd Night: Shepherd's Bush Empire = Blues
3rd Night: Hammersmith Apollo = Rock
4th Night: Royal Albert Hall = Acoustic/Electric


Conceptually, I think that the most interesting of these four concerts was the first - the Borderline gig - only because it was the most of a stretch for Joe. Blues, Rock, Acoustic/Electric - these are not only perennial elements of his live show (less so the acoustic, but that's certainly been a thing lately), but represent the kind of shows he's been doing of late. To see him turn back the clock about ten years, and return to the mindspace and musicspace he was in when he was just getting started as a solo artist - the point in his career that turned many of us, myself included, into Bonamassa fans (it was the A New Day Yesterday Live album that accompanied his first studio album - and particularly the title track from it - that turned me into a fan when I first heard it circa 2004 or thereabouts) - was fascinating.

And, true to form, the emphasis in a lot of these songs - performed in a power trio format - is guitar virtuosity. Not so much on the songcrafting, but just busting out stupid ridiculous extended guitar solos à la Cream. No track represents this better than Joe's cover of the Rod Stewart-penned, Jeff Beck-recorded Blues Deluxe. This is one of his best recordings of this song ever. Along with it, I put the slow burning Pain And Sorrow on the 'A' set as well, as it is one of my favorite deep cuts from Joe's early days (a shining beacon hailing from what most would consider his worst album, the sophomore record So It's Like That, recorded during the ill-advised period before he completely rejected the notion that a successful musician is defined by his commercial radio hits).

On the 'B' set, I chose The River, which is a bluesy, slide guitar song with a nice build to it that I've liked ever since seeing Joe perform it on the forgotten Live at Rockpalast concert DVD (advertising for which I don't doubt has been intentionally suppressed due to the venue's habit - as reflected in the way the show is filmed - of putting half-dressed girls on stage to dance while the band plays (not that there's anything wrong with that :p)). Along with it is actually a song from one of Joe's middle period albums (The Ballad of John Henry) - titled Happier Times - which is a bit of a sleeper hit that I never really latched onto until I heard him perform it here at these shows.

Musically, I think I was most looking forward to seeing the Shepherd's Bush Empire gig, just because I'm a huge fan of the blues. And, while I don't generally share Joe's opinion that a good blues band needs a horn section, I'd say their inclusion in this case was tasteful and not overwhelming. The two songs that made it onto my 'B' set are predictable, but excellent demonstrations of Joe's blues rock approach. The first one, So Many Roads, is an earlier cover of a track that was recorded in the '60s by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, featuring one of my personal favorites, Peter Green, on guitar. The second one is Joe's Slow Train, from his Dust Bowl period, which is a powerhouse rocker that features a very convincing musical emulation of a train starting up. I saw him perform this one live in concert one of the several times I've caught Joe Bonamassa on tour.

The 'A' set features a few even more exciting tracks from this show. First is a cover of (sadly, the now late) Gary Moore (who inherited Peter Green's guitar)'s Midnight Blues. While most people probably remember Gary Moore for his flashy ballad Still Got The Blues (and in this case, with good reason), Midnight Blues is a great, minor key song that perfectly encapsulates the theme of Joe's blues night at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Following that on the 'A' set is a cover of Chains & Things, one of the most scorching guitar tracks in B.B. King's recorded legacy, and one of those rare cases of finding out a musician you like is covering one of your favorite less popular songs by another artist.

My final pick from this show is another of Joe's mid-period songs, The Great Flood, and another one (like Happier Times) that I didn't latch onto until I heard this concert. But it is now one of my favorite songs that the man performs (although there are a lot of those). I remember watching Joe perform it on the DVD, and wondering what song this was, because it's not one of the ones you immediately recognize when you first listen to it on the album (such as, for example, the title track from the same album, The Ballad of John Henry), and it doesn't have a catchy chorus or anything. But it's very slow, and melancholic, and lures you in to a false sense of security, until, towards the end, it unexpectedly erupts into a searing guitar solo. Rarely have I experienced a better musical rendition of depression followed by anguish, and watching it the first time actually caused my eyes to well up with tears (and I love it when music can touch me like that).

I'll give it to you straight, the last two nights of the Tour de Force aren't all that different, aside from the extended acoustic set at the Royal Albert Hall. But while a couple of acoustic tracks made it onto an early version of this compilation, I ultimately decided that they just aren't interesting enough, to me personally, to take space away from the electric tracks. But if the last two nights are similar, that doesn't mean they aren't spectacular. This is where the mainstays and concert centerpieces come to roost, and the best opportunity on this particular compilation to represent some of Joe's then-newer songs in the live format. To that end, the 'B' set's got Dust Bowl and Dislocated Boy. The former features an impassioned lead with some liquid guitar licks, and the latter, hailing from Joe's Driving Towards the Daylight album, features a maverick keyboard solo by Arlan Schierbaum (if you watch the DVD, you'll note that he stands up on his keyboard while playing during this solo)!

On the 'A' set I threw in a live version of Joe's cover of the Led Zeppelin track Tea For One, featuring Doug Henthorn on guest lead vocals. Joe is an incredible talent of a blues rock guitarist, and he's built a reputation on recording incredible covers of British blues songs, but Led Zeppelin is still rock royalty, and one dares not tread lightly on their legacy, if one expects to be well-respected on one's own merits. Hearing that Joe was going to cover a classic Led Zeppelin track alone is enough to get fans excited, but the somewhat underappreciated Tea For One - a mournful, slow blues - was an inspired choice, and Joe did an amazing job doing justice to the song, effectively conjuring the feel of the original. Even more incredible is the fact that he was able to perform it live in concert, as he did during the Tour de Force at the Hammersmith Apollo.

The other track from the Hammersmith Apollo that I put on the 'A' set was Joe's signature number, a cover that brought new life to a song first recorded by actor/entertainer Tim Curry - Sloe Gin. This song is, in essence, Joe's Stairway To Heaven (as clichéd or pretentious as it may be to say that), and is not only a concert staple, but always a highlight of Joe's live show. On the 'B' set, I ended up throwing in Lonesome Road Blues because, even though it seems like a "filler" song thrown in between greater spectacles, the energy and audacity with which Joe attacks the song is so palpable, and it's a perfect demonstration of the mindset Joe must have been in, completely daunted by the work flow propped up on his shoulders, but tearing through it with no less gusto, like a hungry wolverine.

Finally, closing out each disc, we come to the epic centerpiece songs - the ones that feature extended jams, and regularly exceed ten minutes in length from start to finish. I had to shuffle them about a little bit, due to time constraints, so that at least one of the two that turns up on the 'B' set is good enough to be on the 'A' set. On the other hand, the two that ended up on the 'B' set are also represented on one of my other Joe Bonamassa greatest hits compilations (from a different live album), so if anything, the one that made it onto the 'A' set is probably the most "essential" inclusion of the three. That one is Joe's The Ballad of John Henry, which, if Sloe Gin is Joe's Stairway to Heaven, this would be his Dazed and Confused.

But, speaking of which, one of the two that ended up on the 'B' set is Joe's cover of ZZ Top's Just Got Paid, which features an extended instrumental section in which Joe has taken it upon himself to resurrect the guitar solo from the actual song Dazed and Confused! (I hope this isn't too confusing). Suffice to say, it's awesome. This version comes from the Hammersmith Apollo, whereas the other two songs I've been talking about in these two paragraphs both come from the final night at the Royal Albert Hall. The last song I have yet to name, and the last song on the 'B' set, is the medley of Django/Mountain Time, the latter part of which is a pretty song that's long been one of Joe's concert highlights, that builds up to a crescendo, and is a nice way to end the compilation.

Altogether, this is two discs (or if you're really pressed for time, you could squeeze it down to just the first one - although I wouldn't recommend it) of incredible music, and some of Joe's best live performances ever recorded. To date, that is - as he is ever producing more material, in the studio and on the stage, and at an almost inhuman pace. But what may come in the future, no matter how good it might be, won't change the quality of what we've got right here, collected for posterity (and a damn good, rocking time)!

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