Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Joe Bonamassa – Live At The Greek Theatre

In ancient times kings established their hegemony by claiming that their divine right to rule came direct from their ancestors, the gods. By the middle ages, detailed family trees were being outlined to establish pecking orders as a rationale to explain why some duke or other was going off to kill his cousin and take his rightful place on a then conveniently empty throne. How much of this thinking goes behind Live At The Greek Theatre can’t be left unconsidered.

Joe Bonamassa’s latest DVD and CD release finds him playing at a 5,000+ open-air event he could only dream of when he lived downtown from it in Los Angeles. He’s worked hard to establish himself, both live and in the studio, rising to the frontline of today’s blues rock guitarists. It’s not the gods who’ve decreed he can fill The Greek, it’s his fans, who’ve swelled into numbers so large. And yet, it’s not the pinnacle that is Mount Olympus where the likes of Clapton still reside. So, are Bonamassa’s management team seeking to take advantage of his Three Kings tour in those time honoured traditions of old?

The Three Kings tour was established as a series of dates where the guitarist could honour his influences by playing songs made famous by the blues legends that are Albert, Freddie and B.B. King. The bonus DVD is more interesting than most of this kind since it features quite an extensive interview with Bonamassa’s parents. For those who know his work, the story of him being a child prodigy and playing club dates as a teenager are well known, but personal observations and pit-stop visits to places he played take it beyond home movie to a cosy, insightful documentary featuring two proud parents. His background is given foundation here, when we come to the main DVD it begins with news footage taken back when he was a chubby teenager, confident only with a guitar wrapped round his neck. This cuts to B.B King praising the lad. Job, done, mantle passed, the roar of a crowd and an aerial view shooting down on a filled open-air theatre imply the Gods, too, approve; enter Smokin’ Joe and his band.

Boogieing to ‘See See Baby’, it’s the exemplary playing of the horn section that first catches your attention, Bonamassa taking a short meaty solo with everyone on stage looking as if they’re there to have fun. Next number in and it’s the harmonies and individual voices that the three female backing singers bring to ‘Some Other Day, Some Other Time’ that draws your attention – in fact Bonamassa initially further diverts interest away from himself by letting touring guitarist Kirk Fletcher take the first solo. When he does play his chops, his fingers whiz up his fretboard fast and furious, and with third number ‘Lonesome Whistle Blues’ – where the band give the number an almost Steely Dan approach – he’s suddenly laying in the kind of heavy metal histrionics that were born when producer Jimmy Page allowed the distortion to go into the red as Clapton recorded the solo for John Mayall single ‘I’m Your Witchdoctor’.

When he hits that guitar neck, the sounds he produces are fresh, rarely sounding like reworks of licks played since time immemorial, but the fact that he plays his guitar so infrequently outside a solo becomes highly noticeable during the course of this two hour concert. Rather, his right hand holds the lower lip of the guitar’s body and his left clicks its fingers or opts to gesticulate. He’s obviously taking his cues straight from the big bear B.B. King here, as the great man allegedly couldn’t play guitar and sing at the same time. But Bonamassa can, and visually this begins to resemble countless pap modern R’n’B singers’ affected hand gestures. Personally, I’ve long enjoyed the timbre of Bonamassa’s voice but here, too, over so long a period I realise his range is actually limited. Fortunately, those backing singers divert your attention, Mahalia Barnes in particular – the daughter of Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes, she possesses her father’s powerful tonsils and a soulful explosion of freeform energy all her own. As with when the horn section let fly, your eyes and ears will turn to view such exciting moments.

The band as whole burn on ‘Going Down’. It’s sharp, sexy, grinding rock, Reese Wynans’ persistent piano rolling out and the girls shaking their collective booties come the chorus lines. It’s unfair to compare Jeff Beck’s version but Bonamassa kicks ass here.

Taking up a Flying-V once worn by Freddie King, and now the possession of actor Steven Seagal, Bonamassa’s sound changes uniquely and is particularly effective on ‘Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’. A frenetic, squealing solo subsides into a slower more melodic framework as ‘Angel Of Mercy’ thumps out its blues and it’s only really upon the song’s completion that Bonamassa addresses his crowd. That he then takes time out to announce every one of the members on stage allows some of the momentum to slide and it’s a while for the next batch of songs to grab your attention. That it’s ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ with Barnes tearing up a storm on vocals is solid compensation. ‘Ole Time Religion’ could have come across as rather hokum but the band hit it in the pocket and Wynans’ piano and the female singers add pure gospel. ‘Boogie Woogie Woman’ does what it says on the tin and then comes Leon Russell’s ‘Hummingbird’. This slow blues rendition may allow Bonamassa to effect the tone of B.B. King’s Lucille guitar during solo flight but again that absence of guitar during the breadth of the song, despite Fletcher’s presence, means its loses much of the rhythmic shuffle Page’s cover possessed on his own berated Outrider album. The song ends the main performance and fortunately when they return they’re back with the party spirit that began this show.

Freddie King’s ‘Hideaway’ is an interesting take on the instrumental, more a Hank Marvin meets Duane Eddy approach than the roughhouse showpiece Clapton delivered back in the 60s on the classic Bluesbreakers album. That Bonamassa takes on another number made popular to the white masses by E.C., but this time when he was in Cream, is a brave challenge, but he rises to it, a Flying V once more in his arms as the horn section locks in around him for a splendid version of ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, first popularised by Albert King. Bonamassa then concludes the night with B.B.’s signature number ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, the momentum of the previous numbers held with the show ending on a high note.

Paul H Birch
Paul H Birch
RAMzine Senior Writer - Writer of fiction, faction and fact, has edited several newsstand magazines. He declares himself a hack for hire but refuses to compromise on the subject of music.

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