Lights go down a harmonica howls loud and an old blues number makes out like its speeding down a train track as from my vantage point I see Joe Bonamassa and his band, led by torches, walk a small flight of stairs and take up their positions on stage.
Across the raised backline drummer Anton Fig on drums is shouldered one side by trumpeter Lee Thornburg and saxophonist/vocalist Paulie Cerra and backing vocalists Jade MacRae and Wanita Tippins. On the flat, tall and slender Michael Rhodes hugs towards his amps letting out the deepest yet clearest bass guitar lines you’ll ever here, side on from him Reese Wynans sits at his keyboards, hitting homeruns on piano, while suited and booted Joe Bonamassa makes use of the stage, standing centre stage to sing, with a preference to solo legs apart stage right.
What we’re hearing first off tonight is a number that sounds like a bluesy take on the classic ‘Johnny B. Good’ with added bounce and sassy melody. The backing vocalists dance in time, up in the mix and hitting the choruses high ready for X to solo on trumpet, followed by Bonamassa who half-way trough takes a bottleneck affixed to his mic stand and plays slide for the one and only time tonight. This is ‘King Bee Shakedown’ the first of several brand new numbers, not due for release until December we’ll find out later in the show. This unfamiliarity doesn’t prevent the applause heard on its conclusion.
As Bonamassa straps on a Gibson Les Paul, Fig tears into a drum roll before X and Bonamassa hug together musically on the driest of chords, the horn section adding a unique Zeppelin style flourish. The tune feels dark and sinister; aptly it’s titled ‘Evil Mama’. Power chords pre-empt a slow solo from the guitarist, after the next verse we’ll get another, nicely drenched in wah-wah sound effects moving to ever speedier licks as it races towards the end. It’s followed by the man’s guitar howling and squealing away for the blues driven ‘Just Cause You Can’, Rhodes’ dirty bass driving this story drive number along. Through a series of solos Bonamassa reaches for the high notes, plays sweet and mellow, then rides up and down the neck of his guitar with heavy duty hammer-ons and pull-offs.
‘Self-Inflicted Wounds’ comes next with trumpet solos, Red Indian war beats some sustained blues guitar soling, and the ladies singing their socks or stockings off. Strapping on a Flying V (quite possibly the one he bought from actor Steven Seagal and previously owned by the late but still great Albert King) to aptly cover ‘It Get Evil’ in a rendition that’s got an overall samba feel to it, with horn section and Wynans’ piano standing out. With yet another guitar change (Rhodes is also changing basses throughout the night), Bonamassa’s Gibson Les Paul leads the way to ‘No Good Place For The Lonely’. Deep and heavy initially as it tempo changes it finds the guitarist heading into Gary Moore blues shredding territory.
With ‘How Deep This River Runs’ the pace picks up. Rhodes moves away from his amp there’s suddenly a bit more much-needed life on the proverbial dance floor, Bonamassa striking power then broken chords as he and Rhodes face off’ the bass player resounding in four string melody, in essence the pair echoing Free’s ‘Mr Big’ before the guitarist takes flight as the band play on while the pair prowl the stage. It’s a high point, but things are about to get better.
Bonamassa’s audience repartee has been pretty much non-existent thus far, save for calling out the names of a particular soloist now and again. Now he spends a couple of minutes chatting, letting us know every time he’s up this way (doing as passable a bad Midlands accent as most) he likes to invite a friend up on stage to play, and a cheer goes up as former Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden and his Les Paul come on for an extended rendition of ‘Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’. It’s funky, rocking blues, Marsden chopping out the rhythm guitar part initially then after a nod from Bonamassa taking a solo before handing over to Cerra, Thornburg and Cerra again. These all but aperitifs and handled within the main body of the song for when it’s Bonamassa’s turn he hits the high notes, leaving space for distorted echoing and a dash of what can old be described as avant garde blues jazz before he and Marsden pair up to trade riffs on a series of musical question and answers, a conversation not a battle, eventually ending in a sound that resembles Robin Trower playing Zeppelin. As Marsden leaves the stage to heart-felt applause Bonamassa takes time out to introduce the band properly.
The old school funk continues but gets rockier even as the female singers add gospel on ‘Slow Train’ with Bonamassa lead vocals in fine shape themselves with ‘Driving Down The Daylight’. I’m informed the next song was a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Boogie With Stu’ it boogies along sure enough, and Wynans’ piano playing is to the forfront, but it’s not the tune I recognise as such, more akin to ‘Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller’ maybe that’s due to the ladies’ added vocal touches, either way from piano onto sax and concluding with guitar solo where Bonamassa delivers a slice of heavy metal to the evening’s proceedings (he’s also often fond of emitting Townsend power chords tonight).
Fig delivers a drum roll, Rhodes again moves forward and he and Bonamassa hug tight musically. Initially there’s an overall Muddy Waters beat becoming ever more rock ‘n’ roll for ‘Last Kiss’ as practically everyone takes a solo. Then it’s time for the last number, a real tour de force, an almighty cover – and this time there’s no doubt – of Led Zeppelin’s ‘How Many More Times’… Yes, I’m sure there are blue purists out there who’ll tell you it’s really Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘How Many Years’ but sometimes things go beyond Shakespeare asking “What’s in a name?” Especially in music, where it’s your approach and tonight this simple octave turnabout riff is hard, direct and powerful, Bonamassa gives it all he’s got and it’s impressive, Rhodes not only keeping that unrepenting riff in check but adding deep four string chords too, the bolero section is stays one side of psychedelia and its extended so much that when they hit you with the section from ‘The Hunter’ it actually takes you by surprise. The sheer excitement and thrill of the way the number is played make it a thrilling end to the show.
Minutes later he returns for a cover of Leon Russell cover ‘Hummingbird’ while a more laid back number there’s a surprising Black Crowes/Skynard groove early on as MacRae and Tippins pour on the soul, tender for much of its rendition there’s the raw beauty of early Clapton heard as Bonamassa delivers his final solo. Then as band plus Marsden head stage front to take bows and wave us goodnight, that’s it. Job done, and nicely thank you.
While a little more chatting with the audience early on, and often a lack of visual attraction on stage when only the guitarist was moving around might have put off those in the furthest seats, overall this well-honed band delivered top notch musical entertainment all night long. More than this, Joe Bonamassa took risks playing completely new numbers tonight and not fan favourites like ‘Sloe Gin’ or ‘John Henry’.