A two and half-hour show screened live across the internet begins with sponsored advertising. I suspect many of Joe Bonamassa’s fans were born into a world where you couldn’t fast forward your screened entertainment, so that’s cool. Plus, the one for Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation proves informative and its heart-warming to watch live footage testimonials of those who’ve actually received money during the pandemic. As Bonamassa notes when he pops up on screen, “We give away the money as fast as we get it – Because the people need it”. I’m sold on his sincerity here, as for his music, let’s see what he has to offer tonight…
Aerial scenes of Austin, Texas pan in, down and around as we manoeuvrer from cityscapes to an open theatre door, meandering along a corridor until being presented with an empty lit stage.
There’s a small roar and suddenly there’s an isolated crowd of what’s 700 fans here to see the Joe Bonamassa Power Trio… Only there’s four of them, and fortunately she’s easy on the eye and can sing up a storm.
She’s Jade MacRae, “From Sydney, Australia” Bonamassa will tell us later, but she’s going back on 21st May, having being stuck in the USA during the worldwide covid pandemic. Until then we get o admire her shimmying away in a sparkly short dress and red boots, while harmonising, singing in counterpoint or really letting it rip vocally towards the end of the show. She also social distances by vanishing off stage when the band go into extended instrumental sections, and there’s a fair few of those.
Squarely on stage and each wearing head apparel are tonight’s rhythm section. Anton Fig sports a beret, switching between brushes and stick work as he plays a studied drumming role, bearded ass player Steve Mackey wears a flat cap, dark suit and open shirt and a personalised Fender wrapped round his neck.
Bonamassa’s something else. Slick backed hair, dark shades and a series of guitars utilised as working ammunition, he’s armed and ready. His choice of suit however looks a little curious to these eyes watching late at night: dark blue with a lighter blue flower pattern that forms a V either side of his chest, and runs down the lower exteriors of his legs, the collar caught in his guitar strap so initially I mistake it for a Nero suit, the overall effect being that he comes across as some early 60s Jack Kirby styled villain – And if you don’t know who Jack Kirby was you shouldn’t be allowed to help make Disney all that money from Marvel films.
Either way, there’s a dirty guitar kicking in like a superpower on opening number ‘Oh Beautiful!’ With haunting gospel between the heavier parts there’s a lot of spacey spiked rock in its blues formula and its apparent this power trio format operates more in the Stateside manner than the British tradition. Bonamassa applies nimble fingers during the instrumental sections and the overhead crane careering up, down and all around really benefits actual on-stage visuals.
‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’ rides straight in after on a slow funked chordal riff. His solo feels inspired by the late Paul Kossoff’s approach but it’s souped in modern mannerisms, and more notes than the late Free guitarist might play in a whole night. Bonamassa, lost in his playing, meanders the stage and I watch like a virtual tape measure, worrying like a mother hen he’ll get too close to others.
Then comes the real surprise of the evening. Usually, you’re lucky if he offers an introduction or two during a set, tonight he’s rapping away non-stop, telling stories, anecdotes and jokes. None of us have been getting out much with this pandemic, but the verbalising effect on Mr B is a pleasure to listen to. As is his rendition of the late Gary Moore’s ‘Midnight Blues’, the guitarist he’s probably closed to in his sonic approach to the blues. Here there is deft right hand fingered playing followed by an outpouring of unfettered shredding while the rhythm section plays deep and dusty. Shorn of a large band format, notably keyboard embellishments, the trio deliver an altogether more earthy sound throughout.
Between ‘Lookout Man!’ and ‘Beyond The Silence’ we get fuzz bass, theremin, warm chords and a bluesy version of John stylings followed by jazzily distorted and fast runs of the Jeff Beck variety, as we clock in at around 55 minutes with but a handful of songs delivered but much applause on conclusion. Tom Wait’s ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’ is at turns dreamy and hard, its riff tangling within itself as distorted psych-blues laced in melodic lullaby purr out – Then arching his back in what looks an incredibly painful pose screeching notes feed out, the cameras shifting and catching every moment.
Playing many songs voted for by fans, he tells he was unsure about some but advised by others they worked well in the set. Thus ‘Wandering Earth’ get a first-time live airing and ‘Pain And Sorrow’ move from wailing and raving Yardbirds sounds to heavier syncopated Cream-y spurts of rapture between more audience communication. Within it all, Bonamassa, demonstrates he is growing both as a fuller, more assured individual and as a guitar player one of tonal precision.
‘Miss You, Hate You’ he tells us, was a song he wrote when he was cheated on, playing in the band Bloodline, then redid it when he went solo. Musically it evokes both The Band and Derek & The Dominoes. We get more covers with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s ‘Scuttle Buttin’ in soulful splendour and the Jeff Beck Group’s ‘Blues De Luxe’ in a manner imbued with bright and breezy lines Freddie King style.
‘The Ballad Of John Henry’ alerts us we’re nearing the end of the main event, but there’s no rush to get there. There are visual highlights to be had here too, the cameras panning in as he holds his guitar forward feedbacking into his theremin while MacRae returns and entreats us with a vocal solo of pure unbridled sound, Bonamassa returning to hardened blues rock sounds and the band driving it all to conclusion as with guitar held over his head he calls out into his own microphone: “Thank you very much, good night!”.
For many watching worldwide this will have been way past their bedtime, so the acoustic encore of ‘Woke Up Dreaming’ proves apt. The flexibility of his hands working away most impressive, the film crew deserving their own round of applause. Swopping back to electric as the band returns, they finish off with ‘Crossroads’, the Cream blueprint adhered to faithfully musically, MacRae dancing away as they play then adding a new dimension to the age-old song with her vocals, ones that have paired well throughout the night with the main man. That they keep the song short and sweet serves them well. Exhausted, we go to bed, well and truly entertained.