Blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa brought his ‘Guitar Event of the Year’ to Birmingham’s Genting Arena on Friday, kicking into set opener, ‘King Bee Shakedown’, on top form.
Second song – the as yet unreleased, ‘Evil Mama’ – launched with a drum intro that is an incontrovertible nod to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown’.
Later in the song, more Zeppelin-esque vibes were clear in the low wails of Bonamassa’s guitar – textbook Jimmy Page almost. Given Joe’s 2016 UK tour where he examined a number of British guitar legends, it’s unsurprising that Page’s style has seeped into the US artist’s new material.
The majority of Bonamassa’s recorded live performances take place in beautiful old theatres, which seem more fitting for the rich sound of the seven-piece band and Joe’s pricey guitar tone. It’s a small half or third of the Genting Arena being used tonight and the vacuous space behind the stage had a slightly subtractive impact on the sound.
The Symphony Hall – with its world-class and acclaimed acoustics would perhaps be a better albeit slightly smaller fit.
Nevertheless, the band sounded incredible – keys, brass, backing singers, drums and bass – it was a big sonic experience.
Fourth of the new songs, ‘Self–Inflicted Wounds’, was another standout track and boding well for a new release.
It was a big shift in mood from the previous three songs; atmospheric, foreboding and emotional, it flicked between a sighing bass line and an epic ascending chorus before concluding with an epic break down punctuated by trumpet and saxophone blasts.
Fans of Bonamassa will be familiar with his penchant for acquiring rare vintage guitars. Seeing him parade a small part of his private collection onstage is a highlight for some, and tonight didn’t disappoint them. I counted two Gibson Les Pauls, a Flying V, an ES335, two Fender Stratocasters and two Telecasters.
It’s a set that meandered through many of history’s blues-rock incarnations and showcased both the light and shade of one of the most important and influential musical genres.
A cover of Albert King song ‘I Get Evil’, ironically, offered the most fun of all the songs in the set, introducing jazzier rhythms. Whilst ‘No Good Place For The Lonely’ – which was played straight after – was textbook Bonamassa.
Coming from his most recent studio album, ‘Blues of Desperation’, it is sorrowful anthemic blues rock with progressive tendencies – from its pogoing riff to its massive chorus underpinned by heavenly gospel harmonies.
Though the set has been much the same across the U.K. tour, Birmingham’s show was not without its surprises. Midway through the gig, the guitarist welcomed longtime friend Bernie Marsden of UFO and Whitesnake fame to the stage. Not their first onstage duel, the pair riffed off each other with great playfulness and skill in a moment that was less a competition and more of a game of ‘catch’.
Whilst the star of tonight’s performance has a great voice, onstage he pushed his guitar playing harder than his vocals. Fan favourite ‘Slow Train’ showcased the immense vocal talent of the people behind him – his two backing singers to his right and saxophonist to his left taking on shared lead singing duties – and they held little back.
Aside from Bernie’s introduction, Bonamassa refrained for the most part from interacting with the crowd. It’s at the 90-minute mark, and at long last, that Joe talked with the crowd: “For the first four songs we were playing new material from an album coming out in September. Now, people may say it’s too early to play new music but I stand here in proud indignation.”
Referencing huge fan favourite ‘Ballad of John Henry’ from the album of the same name – which doesn’t get an airing tonight – Bonamassa joked, “Though I know somewhere there’s a man saying to his wife ‘this ain’t no John Henry – I’m going to get me a f*****g hotdog’.”
What did make a frequent appearance, however, is the Billboard #1-artist’s incredible guitar playing prowess. His virtuoso talent, developed by BB King and honed over thousands of hours of practice is plain to see.
As the set drew to a close, Bonamassa made a point of introducing the band, member by member.
As this process unfolded it becomes apparent, and to no surprise, he’s selected the cream of the crop with musicians originating from across the globe complete with CVs that include work with Tom Petty and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The show highlight came during the set closer, Led Zeppelin track, ‘How Many More Times’, during which Bonamassa demonstrated just how many sounds and expressions he could get out of his axe.
During one of his solos, he flicked between picking and rolling his guitar volume in and out – a technique known as ‘violining‘. What Bonamassa achieved in this moment is utterly breath–taking, and as he moved from this into a percussive succession of higher notes, the audience seemed to hang on every single one.
Barely off the stage for 60 seconds, the band returned to play into set closer and cover of Leon Russell song, ‘Hummingbird’. Unfortunately the previous showcasemade this encore pale in comparison – and vocally it sounded as if Bonamassa may have bitten off a bit more than he could chew – but the intensity of Hummingbird’s crescendo was a fitting end to a masterclass from one of the world’s greatest guitar players.
Words: Gareth Griffiths