England’s second city went over all big on the blues in the second week of May. Those with Top 30 albums, UK Blues Award winners and sundry local acts have all gone down a storm. The weekend is concluded by a performance from Grammy Award nominated Stateside guitarist Joe Bonamassa at the city’s Utilita Arena.
The venue’s packed, but many a straggler’s still coming in even as he’s halfway through opening number ‘Evil Mama’. Whether that’s down to the aftermath of a Women’s Rights campaign being sabotaged during the afternoon or the fact that once the council sold the venue off its since kept changing hands and subsequently its name so there’s constant confusion whether it’s the old NIA or NEC venue. It’s the former, Bonamassa having played the latter venue last time he hit town back in 2019.
Decked out in light blue suit, sunglasses and adorned with several shades and sizes of guitar during the night is the man’s whose name’s on the coveted ticket we hold. To Bonamassa’s right is Josh Smith also on guitar and looking a lot more casual, but totting a Stetson for effect. Backing singers Danielle De Andrea and Jade MacRae are decked out in frilly shoulder-cuffed designer naval attire and raised on a platform up back where they dance in tandem. Beside them a powerhouse drummer in Lamar Carter. Back down on the ground, bass player Calvin Turner is occasionally hidden from where I’m sitting, tucked in as he is beside the ever-present Reese Wynans on keyboards.
Letting the music do the talking, a mellow intro leads us into a soulful rendition of ‘Dust Bowl’, and while his vocals aren’t as up in the mix as we’d like there’s no hiding his guitar playing, for here as he solos he finds expressive notes within the chord progression, unassumingly he sustains notes before an impressive series of speedy ones burst free, only for the band to stop as one. The crowd applaud and the solo proceeds, surging back into the main song, before the crackling thunder of Carter’s drums lead it to towards conclusion.
A brief “Thank you!” finds the usually reluctant stage conversationist making with some unusually early banter. The epic rendition of ‘Love Ain’t a Love Song’ that follows ensures it’ll be a while before he does so again. Opening with some old school funk grooving, its deeper bellowing riff drawing us further in. Thankfully, his voice is clearer on this one, oozing grit and character, enhanced further as De Andrea and MacRae come in strong on the chorus. Wynans solos on organ, and from the vantage point of my seat I’ve a clear view of all that he’s playing, it’s impressive and seemingly done with consummate ease. The rhythm section push harder as Bonamassa joins in, the sonics of his solo initially informed by the sadly late Jeff Beck here. Moving stage right, he leans forward striking a pose and lets his guitar sustain loud, emitting clutches of sound, before letting it all erupt into a bluesy wail. The series of notes that follow dance wildly, and as he begins to move back towards centre stage an array of guitar tricks are performed, simply in passing. As the song picks up again, spotlights that have been cruising gently about the band and stage floor begin to rise, peering out and up into the gods, even as Smith steps forward, takes a brisk solo, pass its over to Bonamassa and the song reaches its climax.
A click of drum sticks and Turner is away soloing with effects driven bass, keyboards and guitar sketch out an aural soundscape as the bass balances on the edge of fusion, then loud and clear, Bonamassa’s voice resounds as the organ takes us straight into the middle eight of ‘Self-Inflicted Wounds’ – The song stirs, brews deeply, and gradually builds to a point that it would be rude not to allow cathartic release via guitar solo, and to that end both Bonamassa and Smith do so together, before Bonamassa divebombs down his guitar’s neck, sustaining tonally like Kossoff before curtailing back into the song. MacRae wails out responsively gospel style, where among the literal utterances we hear: “Have mercy on me and my pain”, and after crowd applause De Andrea joins in on harmony before the song reaches a deep heavy conclusion.
Guitar licks play out in casual response to his vocals with the following big band blues of ‘Just Cuz You Can’. Playful in that B.B. King manner, the guitarist gives it some rock and roll come the solo, unleashing a brief series of hammer-ons and trills before re-entry to the next verse. Later, Wynans takes a solo on organ, picked up with fire by Bonamassa, his left foot forward bending into it, then leaning back as power chords ricochet in climax.
He’s previously joked how the band are bleeding for us tonight, and following another brief “Thank you”, they keep things a little on the less serious side of things with ‘Shout About It’. A goodtime Muscle Shoals feel, Wizard-like Wynans alternating between electric piano and organ, as Bonamassa wags a pointed finger singing along. An organ solo gives way to Smith on guitar, then Bonamassa, the tempo building as the backing singers give it some. The slow blues of ‘Double Trouble’ follows, piano leading the way and proving incredibly creative throughout, though guitar lovers need not worry that they’re being short changed on this number.
A sunburst Les Paul in hand, Bonamassa makes out like Hendrix giving it plenty on the wah-wah intro to ‘Didn’t Think She Would Do It’, a tumbling rock beat laid out by Carter. It’s high energy, a singalong, both onstage and off, with Bonamassa goes for broke when soloing and we all finish winners once out on the other side.
The guitarist notes it takes some 30 people to put the show that we’re witness to tonight. That’s roadcrew, merchandise and sundry others we rarely meet, but if not for them the show won’t go on. Bonamassa gives his team suitable recognition, as he does band members. Particularly praising Wynans who he asks the audience to rise and show their respect to the “fucking legend”.
Then it’s on to one of his more recent triumphs, the splendid ‘Conversation With Alice’, that if anything could’ve gone a while longer – You can solo like a monster, but it’s still the song that counts, and this demonstrates how his craft in that area developed further having worked with Jack Bruce’s writing partner Pete Brown, albeit a solo-penned number with a personal narrative.
Blues shuffle ‘Heart That Never Waits’ features plenty of solos from all concerned. Bonamassa himself lays on the pyrotechnics, playing in a variety of styles as he roams the stage, and when he’s back at the mic, the vocals interchanges between him and the ladies at the back suitably potent. Hard boogie is next by way of ‘Lonely Boy’, Smith soloing first, Wynans joining in on organ, then with a drum roll, piano and bass mix it up with a musical conversation. When Bonamassa’s playing takes precedence there’s surf rock with feedback, with some Steve Howe touches layered into heavier blues rock – All while this is going on, for those with eagle eyes, De Andrea and Jade MacRae are doing this hop, skip and swishing dance routine.
Finally, with Flying V in hand, heavy and loud, we get ZZ Top cover ‘Just Got Paid’ – There is infectious riffing performed with soulful class, the V cutting through with intense melodic rocking bordering on metal, between echoing power chords issued, and other tricks of the guitar trade thrown in for show (and that’s what this is, don’t foreget). At one point I think Bonamassa’s going into ‘Train Kept A Rolling’ instead it’s the latter section of Jimmy Page’s ‘Dazed & Confused’ solo epic (bits of which aren’t too different from Iommi’s power chords for Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ thus fitting for a Brummie audience). It’s intercut by a drum solo where a whole fleet of white spotlights flood the stage, then we’re back in with the ZZ Top number, yet even as it climaxes, Bonamassa, inserts the guitar melody to Peter Frampton’s ‘Do You Feel Like I Do’, and I think to myself, well, I feel pretty good!
Returning to the stage on his lonesome, Bonamassa declares he couldn’t think of a better place to end his UK tour. He’s just turned 46, and some 20 years ago he wrote a song that ended up getting a lot of radio overplay over here and helping make his name, he tells us. The rest of the band and have by now filtered back on stage, and Wynans’ piano evokes the flow of a gently running river, with but a few frail notes of guitar, Bonamassa begins to sing this evening’s encore ‘Sloe Gin’ – the backing singers add harmonies, the come in collectively with a Free-like force, the whole a slow encircling power, near spellbinding as slow fury erupts on guitar, lines tangling themselves up in ever questioning lyricism; seeking, exploring, then defining with intent clarity a purpose as thematically the mood takes a classic southern rock groove, getting heavier until the guitar rages once more, accentuating with wailing sustains to a hail of notes come thundering down the fretboard to return back up again as power chords call and end to it all.
Hands outstretched, sunglasses off, Joe Bonamassa exclaims: “How about this for a band!” Then, following a collective bow they’re off to the strains of Irving Berlin’s ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’.