Friday, February 17, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Beacon Theatre: Live From New York (2012)

1-1. 72nd St. Subway Blues
1-2. Slow Train
1-3. Cradle Rock
1-4. When The Fire Hits The Sea
1-5. Midnight Blues
1-6. Dust Bowl
1-7. The River
1-8. I'll Take Care Of You (with Beth Hart)
1-9. Sinner's Prayer (with Beth Hart)
1-10. You Better Watch Yourself
1-11. Steal Your Heart Away
2-1. Bird On A Wire
2-2. Down Around My Place (with John Hiatt)
2-3. I Know A Place (with John Hiatt)
2-4. Blue And Evil
2-5. Walk In My Shadows (with Paul Rodgers)
2-6. Fire And Water (with Paul Rodgers)
2-7. Mountain Time
2-8. Young Man Blues
2-9. [Bonus] If Heartaches Were Nickels

Beacon Theatre is another live album that originally flew under my radar, at a point when Joe's creative output was beginning to exceed the typical one album per year - what with all the side projects he was getting involved in, between Black Country Communion, Beth Hart, and in another year or so, Rock Candy Funk Party. Compared to his last live album, this one feels less like a coherent show than a collection of live tracks, although that might just be because there's no real centerpiece. Sloe Gin is conspicuously absent - although, to be fair, we've heard two live versions by this point already (and will get two more on the soon to come Tour de Force) - as is the showstopping Just Got Paid. This may be a blessing in disguise, however, as you wouldn't really want every live album to have the same tracklist (and Joe has been really great about this). Instead, the spotlight here is spread out between three special guests (I like to informally refer to this album as "Joe Bonamassa & Friends"), none with quite the clout of Eric Clapton (who appeared on Live From The Royal Albert Hall), although I suppose Paul Rodgers comes pretty close.

The setlist for this concert consists largely of tracks from Joe's latest two albums, Black Rock and Dust Bowl - which is just as you would want. The show opens with a live version of Slow Train, giving you a chance to hear what it sounds like in concert. Then Joe dips back to his first album for the Rory Gallagher cover Cradle Rock, before pulling out Black Rock's When The Fire Hits The Sea, plowing through these songs like he's just getting warmed up. Following that is a cover of Gary Moore's Midnight Blues ("in the darkest hour of the darkest night, it's a million miles to the morning light"), which is a moody, slow blues with a searing guitar solo, that won't turn up on any of Joe's studio albums, but that we'll hear again on the Tour de Force.

It's definitely one of the highlights of this show, as is the title track from Dust Bowl, which, in my personal opinion, sounds even better live, with more emphasis on the electric instruments, and an extended solo. Joe also digs out The River, one of my favorites from his earlier days, but, while still sounding good, most of Joe's songs peak early in concert, as Joe continuously turns his attentions to his contemporary material. You might consider this a shame if you like those old songs (as I do), but it's good that so far Joe hasn't had to fall back and rely on past glories. (Even the nostalgia-heavy Tour de Force could be viewed as a ritual to honor the past in order to give Joe the freedom to move forward into a new era). Maybe a day like that will eventually come - although with his talent, I can't imagine Joe ever plateauing, just changing directions - but it hasn't come yet.

The first special guest on this album is Beth Hart (who I would describe as a "gloomy" soul singer), with whom Joe has recorded a couple of albums. I've voiced my opinions on her before; suffice to say, she's a very talented singer, but I don't enjoy Joe Bonamassa's collaborative material with her as much as his solo output. That having been said, this live album features the two best tracks from their first album together, Don't Explain, which are the two that feature Joe most prominently (which makes sense, as this isn't a Beth Hart concert). Those two tracks are I'll Take Care Of You - a dramatic, slow burner - and the rocking blues, Sinner's Prayer - which you might remember Eric Clapton covering on his '90s blues album, From The Cradle. Simply put, it's Beth Hart for Joe Bonamassa fans, which is just the introduction you'd expect from this live album.

The show continues with Dust Bowl's You Better Watch Yourself, which, like most songs in Joe's repertoire, is improved by its live energy. It has a great solo, falling into the tradition of what I like to refer to as "junk food rockers". These are songs that aren't showstoppers, and could even be called "filler" - but not because they're boring. They fill you up and never let you down. In contrast, Steal Your Heart Away, from Black Rock, is more of a "take it or leave it" track - it has a good chorus, but the guitar part pales in direct comparison to the last song. Disc two of this album opens with a cover of Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire. On Black Rock, this was a pretty acoustic ballad that didn't do much for me, personally. It's still not one of my favorites, but this live version is interesting, because, though still pretty laidback, it's fully electric.

Special guest number two is John Hiatt. You'd think he'd be performing Tennessee Plates, which he recorded with Joe on Dust Bowl. But instead, he pulls out a haunting acoustic number called Down Around My Place, to which Joe applies a thrilling electric crescendo. I'd say we got the benefit of that substitution. The duo also plays I Know A Place, a song that Hiatt wrote, and that Joe recorded for Black Rock. Following that is a live version of a song I wouldn't have expected to hear in concert - my favorite track from Black Rock, Blue And Evil. It skips the acoustic part completely (ironically, in one of the few cases where I think it adds to the song), making me wonder if Joe consciously steered clear of acoustic music on this live album because he was anticipating the full acoustic tour he'd be doing in the near future. Regardless, this is one of those rare cases where I actually prefer the polish of the studio version.

Joe's third guest is none other than Paul Rodgers of Bad Company fame - although Joe's interest in the musician goes back further, primarily to his days with the underappreciated band Free (which is, I'm discovering, a whole lot more than the one hit wonder who put out All Right Now). Like Hiatt, Rodgers has another surprise for the audience. Instead of doing Heartbreaker, which Joe performed with Glenn Hughes on Dust Bowl, they pull out one of Joe's songs from his first album, Walk In My Shadows - which also happens to be a cover of a song by Free! Honestly, I think I would have preferred to hear Heartbreaker, but what can you say? Their second song together, Fire and Water, is a classic Free tune with a killer riff - and one that Joe hadn't previously covered.

The concert concludes with another soaring, twelve minute long version of Mountain Time - which still sounds fantastic. This is a song that hasn't yet begun to lose steam. Following that is an extended cover of The Who's Young Man Blues. Like Just Got Paid, it's a live-only song that Joe hasn't recorded in the studio. I suppose it should be considered Joe's next big classic rock cover, but it only goes to show that Joe's moved into another phase of his career, that I've never gotten as excited about this song as many of his earlier ones. I hate to say this, but it actually feels uncharacteristically sloppy (it really does sound like an encore). Not that it doesn't have a lot of rock energy (channeling the sort of wild abandon that might one day have concluded with Pete Townshend demolishing a guitar), but it's not as tight as The Who's best live performances were. Still, I'm glad it made it onto an album for posterity.

Bringing up the rear - and listed as a bonus track on my CD - is a unique version of one of my earliest favorites from Joe's repertoire, the slow blues If Heartaches Were Nickels ("if wine and pills were hundred dollar bills, I might keep you satisfied; if broken dreams were limousines, I might take you for a ride"). This version is sparser than the one found on A New Day Yesterday Live, with a heavy emphasis on the vocals (but not without a suitably searing guitar solo) - demonstrating how far Joe has come as a singer in the decade separating these two recordings. I love it. This is a song that consistently gives me goosebumps, and puts a lump in the back of my throat, even after all these years. It's amazing, but with the acoustic version on Live From Nowhere In Particular, this is the third distinct version of the song that I think is worth putting on a greatest hits collection (or, more likely, series of collections).

I couldn't call Beacon Theatre Joe's best or most characteristic concert, and it likely wouldn't be one of the first ones you'd turn to if you wanted to demonstrate to a prospective fan what a Joe Bonamassa concert could sound like. But it's still a very good live album; I might even rate it higher than Live From The Royal Albert Hall. Within the next few releases, however, we'll encounter both my top favorite, and least favorite live album in Joe's far.

Rating: 💿💿 Occasional Spin

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