Friday, March 22, 2019

Joe Bonamassa - Redemption Tour (2019)


It would have been hard for me to have topped the enthusiasm I had in anticipation of the last time I saw Joe Bonamassa live in concert - which sparked my desire to review his entire discography (an unfinished project; although time may give me the perspective I need to continue - I can't say "finish" so long as Joe is still releasing material). The truth is, having just seen Joe about a year and a half prior to the announcement of his next tour in the area, I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I questioned whether I wanted to go and see him again so soon. (Obvious spoiler: I ended up going). Part of that is due to the novelty wearing out of going to live concerts, after I've been to so many, and the logistics of scheduling a night in the city - when the truth is, Joe Bonamassa puts out so many concert DVDs, that if I have the hankering to watch him perform live, I can just pop one in and enjoy it from the comfort of my living room couch (and with a much better view of the stage, at that). Obviously, being there in person is a different experience, but as I grow older, I am also starting to grow concerned about pesky things like taking care of my hearing. But, in spite of my doubts and worries, it seems that fate conspired to send me to that concert anyway, as I was very thoughtfully gifted tickets over the holidays - and I am very grateful that things turned out this way.


This was the fifth time I've seen Joe Bonamassa live in concert, in a year that marks the fifteenth that I've been a fan. All the way back in 2004, three years after Joe began his solo recording career, I discovered the live companion to his first album A New Day Yesterday through the Grooveyard Records label (the patron saint of independent guitar rock). It was his cover of the Jethro Tull title track that blew me away and turned me into an instant fan. But his virtuosic talent, unwavering work ethic, and dedication to the same music that made me a music fan (blues-based rock from the '60s and '70s) is what fuels my undying loyalty to his career and musical output.

During the course of this concert, Joe mentioned (and not for the first time) how he started out playing (in this area) at a small bar named Moondogs. I've been there, but it wasn't until he played the Rex Theatre (a small, converted one-screen theater) that I first saw him live in 2006. He was at the tail end of the first leg of his career, on the verge of initiating what has become a very lucrative creative partnership with famed record producer Kevin Shirley. A yet relative unknown at the time, I remember Joe walking amongst the crowd before and after the show, as if he were one of us, and not the absolute guitar legend he's proven time and time again to be.

The second time I saw Joe live was at an open-air arts festival the following year, which was a lot of fun. It's hard to believe now, but that was the first time I'd ever heard the epic showstopper Sloe Gin (which I earmarked, even at the time, as being "maybe Joe's best song yet"). I also heard for the first time Joe's rendition of Just Got Paid, complete with the instrumental midsection from Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused interspersed into the middle. I remember thinking, "I hope there's an album released on this tour, so this song will be immortalized, in case it's just a one-off." Little did I know, there would be several live versions released over the years, starting with the one from 2008's Live From Nowhere in Particular.

The next time I saw Joe live in concert was in 2011, and he'd made his way to Carnegie Hall. He'd matured noticeably as a musician since the last time I saw him, at this point having also played his first show at the Royal Albert Hall in London (available on CD and DVD), which was a landmark for his career. It was the Dust Bowl tour, and I could tell that his music was evolving, with more musical experimentation. Following that was a gap of nearly six years, when I saw him again for the Blues of Desperation tour (two years ago), marking yet another new era for Joe - who has evolved considerably as a songwriter, and is still every bit the consummate performer, also engaged in myriad side projects paying homage to the greats of blues history, on both sides of the pond (between Muddy Wolf, The Three Kings - billed as Live At The Greek Theatre - and the British Blues Explosion). This latest show, touring for the following album, Redemption - which I call one of the best of his career - is in a similar vein.

The Show

[MW]Tiger In Your Tank
[R]King Bee Shakedown
[R]Evil Mama
[R]Just 'Cos You Can Don't Mean You Should
[R]Self-Inflicted Wounds (incl. vocal solo)
[BoD]Locomotive Breath Intro/This Train
[BoD]Blues of Desperation
[BoD]No Good Place For The Lonely
Sloe Gin
[3K]Breaking Up Somebody's Home (feat. David Grissom)
[BBE]Little Girl
[BBE]I Can't Quit You Baby
[BBE]How Many More Times
Woke Up Dreaming (acoustic)
Mountain Time

Legend: MW = Muddy Wolf, 3K = Three Kings (a.k.a. Greek Theatre), BBE = British Blues Explosion, BoD = Blues of Desperation, R = Redemption, and unmarked tracks are classics from albums predating 2015

Two years and thirteen days after the previous concert, we returned to the Benedum Center for a repeat performance. We arrived on time for a change (after a pleasant dinner with family), and had to line up around the corner of the building to get in (on a very cold and blustery Saturday evening on which most of the city was preemptively celebrating St. Patrick's Day). A staffer announced as we walked past that there would (once again) be no opening act, just two hours and fifteen minutes of Joe and nothing else - and that's precisely what we got. After briefly reviewing the merch table (I went back and bought a nice tour shirt on the way out after the concert), and failing to spot a group of my other relatives that I knew were attending the concert (it was a big crowd - sold out), we climbed the stairs all the way up to our seats in the balcony, three rows from the back wall. No complaints - the music is absolutely loud enough to enjoy equally throughout the auditorium, and ticket prices have risen since the days of the Rex Theatre, now that Joe Bonamassa is a chart-topping artist (the blues chart, at least).

The show opened with a track from the Muddy Wolf album - Tiger In Your Tank. It's not my favorite opener (that would be the first one I heard - Takin' The Hit - from the Rex Theatre show), but I imagine it must be comforting to Joe to have a recording of Muddy Waters kicking off the action. Next we had a healthy set of four tracks from Joe's latest album - what I was most looking forward to, being that I hadn't heard any of them live yet. It started with King Bee Shakedown and Evil Mama making a rollicking pair, followed by Just 'Cos You Can Don't Mean You Should. This subset culminated with Self-Inflicted Wounds (probably my favorite song from the Redemption album), and one of the highlights of the night. It's a downhearted number, with some excellent guitar fretwork, and self-reflective lyrics. This live version concluded with an impressive and unexpected vocal solo (by Jade MacRae. if I'm not mistaken) reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Great Gig In The Sky.

After that, we had a few tunes from Joe's previous album, Blues of Desperation (which we'd heard the last time he came to town). The first one was This Train; although Joe teased us all by kicking it off with the opening section to Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath (another train-themed song). I'm not gonna lie, This Train isn't my favorite song about trains that Joe plays (I'm partial to So Many Roads, myself, and I'd rather have heard Joe play Mountain Climbing again, from the same album), and judging from the buzz rising through the audience, I think we all would have been more excited to hear the rest of Locomotive Breath instead. Sorry, Joe. The next song was the title track from the album, but neat as it sounds, I have to admit it feels a bit loose in a live context, and I really would have rather heard the title track to Redemption - him not playing that song at all was the only regret I had for the night. I was very excited, on the other hand, to hear No Good Place For The Lonely again - a song containing one of Joe's best and most off-the-hook guitar solos in recent years.

I didn't think I would be so quickly impressed while basking in the glow of satisfaction from hearing that last song, but then Joe followed it up with his old standby, Sloe Gin, which I count as the Stairway To Heaven of Joe's repertoire. It's an amazing song - a very soulful blues, with an incredible guitar part. No matter how many times I've heard it, I don't think I could get tired of it. Since he didn't play it at the last concert, I thought he'd kinda retired it after it had (admittedly) had its fair share of time in the limelight. So I was surprised to hear it again, but very happy that he hasn't given up on it. For a man capable of shredding licks at lightning speed, there's a lot of soul in Joe's playing (moreso than some guitarists who merely regurgitate scales without knowing which notes to hang on), but what I like about the guitar part in Sloe Gin is that it's slower and more meditated and, well, more lucid than a lot of the other solos Joe plays. It's always a treat to hear.

At this point, Joe took a break to introduce his band - the same one, I believe, as on the last tour. Anton Fig on drums, Michael Rhodes on bass. Reese Wynans on keyboards. Paulie Cerra and Lee Thornburg on horns. Jade MacRae and Juanita Tippins on backup vocals. Truly a world-class band - as the level of Joe's talent demands (let alone earns) the best in musical support. At this time, Joe also made a little small talk, about turning the stage into a triage center - apparently he'd cut his finger, and was joking about the day he would become such a diva that he'd have to cancel a show over such a thing ("hashtag goals"); but we all know that would never happen. He also referenced having a cold the last time he played this town, but as then, if the cut on his finger detracted from his performance at all, I couldn't tell, and if he hadn't have mentioned it, I wouldn't have even noticed.

The introductions concluded with a surprise, when Joe drew the audience's attention to an extra amp set up on stage. On walked guitarist David Grissom (who has played for John Mellencamp among others), who joined Joe on a song from the Three Kings tour, Breaking Up Somebody's Home. Playing with one of his idols (like Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall, or B.B. King on the Black Rock album) is one thing, but I was skeptical as to how well anyone could hold their own against a guitarist the caliber of Joe Bonamassa, who could play circles around most anyone on the planet. But David Grissom added some real fire to the song in an exciting duel in which the two guitarists traded licks, building up to a crashing crescendo. It was positively thrilling!

The regular portion of the show concluded with a set from the British Blues Explosion tour, two out of three songs of which I'd heard two years ago. The "Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton" song Little Girl started it off, followed by a double shot from Led Zeppelin's debut album. I think I enjoyed I Can't Quit You Baby more than when I first heard Joe's rendition of it on the live album. It starts with the opening section from a different Led Zeppelin blues, Tea For One (which Joe has previously covered). I felt that it was a little disjointed on the album, trying to combine two songs and losing the conviction of either one, but it was more thrilling to hear it live and in person, being one of my favorite (and not quite as popular, at least inasmuch as a Zeppelin song can be "underrated") bluesy Zeppelin songs.

As on Zep's original album, I Can't Quit You Baby segued into the album (and now show) closer, How Many More Times. This is an epic track (and such a delight to hear live, as if rock history were coming to life right before you) - surely the replacement for Just Got Paid (with its own ode to Zep's first album) in earlier concerts. As you listen to it, you slowly begin to realize that this must be the last song, because you can't imagine anything more bombastic, and anything played after it would be an anticlimax. Excepting the encore of course, for which Joe drug out his acoustic guitar, and played Woke Up Dreaming - the song he uses to stun the audience by playing faster and faster, until it no longer seems humanly possible.

After that, the rest of the band returned to the stage to play the true final song, Mountain Time - another epic number that has matured considerably from its humble days as a sub-four minute track from Joe's oft-overlooked (albeit not without some justification) sophomore studio album. I hadn't heard either of these final two songs at the concert two years ago, so I was a little bit surprised to hear them again, but looking back at the setlists from all the other times I've seen Joe live, they've been played at four out of five concerts, so they can definitely be considered staples of Joe's live setlist, at least as much as Sloe Gin is (if not even more so). It's fascinating to find out what songs stand the test of time, both from the standpoint of fan appreciation, and also what the artist continues to enjoy playing year after year after year.

I know Joe Bonamassa has been hinting at retirement lately, and my opinion as a longtime fan is that he deserves a rest. I don't call him the hardest working musician alive for no reason - he's been incredibly prolific - and "always on the road" is barely an exaggeration. I don't want to see him quit music entirely (I don't know how he could, it's so enmeshed in his DNA); I hope he continues to write and record throughout his life. But I would consider him fully justified in slowing down, quitting touring for a while, not pushing himself but waiting until the inspiration strikes to get back in the studio. Surely he's carved a name for himself (at least within the right circles), though I wish his songs would get more play - whether on the radio, or in movies, or what have you. Not out of any popularity/competition thing, but just because the music is so good. Beyond being a guitar virtuoso - which he's been from day one - his craft has matured and his songs have been very smooth and polished of late, yet without diminishing the raw force of his talent. Anything he puts out between now and retirement I will continue to gobble up hungrily; and if he does come back for another show in a year or two or three (or ten or twenty!), I'll still be game for it. It's always exciting to see what Joe Bonamassa will do next!

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