Joe Bonamassa, Live At The Usher Hall Edinburgh 18/04/17
Joe Bonamassa, Live At The Usher Hall Edinburgh 18/04/17
It’s been 4 years since Blues/Rock superstar Joe Bonamassa last played in Scotland’s capital, but he’s been far from idle in that time. Without a doubt one of the hardest working men in music, he tours relentlessly, yet somehow finds time to participate in a myriad of other projects: From backing soul singers such as Beth Hart and Mahalia Barnes to his funk/rock supergroup Rock Candy Funk Party, he’s even had a recent studio reunion with Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherninian and Jason Bonham to record Black Country Communion 4 – which is certainly one of the most anticipated rock releases of this year.
Much of his live output in recent years, meanwhile, has focused on paying tribute to many of his heroes, with tours focusing on the work of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, The ‘Three Kings’ (Albert, Freddie and BB) and, most recently, his ‘Salute To The British Blues Explosion’ which stopped off at Glasgow’s Clyde Auditorium last summer.
Last year he also released his second album of all-original music, Blues Of Desperation, which – in a career that has already spanned an incredible 12 solo records – is without a doubt one of his best yet. Tonight’s set list is an intriguing mix of all his recent solo work, showcasing a large chunk of Blues Of Desperation, mixed in with some ‘British Blues’ classics and legendary standards by the Three Kings. While this means many of Bonamassa’s own popular cuts are posted missing – the likes of Sloe Ginand John Henry are sad omissions – the varied set does allow him to showcase the dizzying depth and breadth of his talents on the guitar, as well as highlight his underrated voice.
For this tour he has brought with him a band which, for our money, must surely be one of the greatest ever assembled. The core group features Bonamassa’s long time studio collaborator Anton Fig, the powerhouse drummer best known for almost 30 years as part of David Letterman’s House Band. With the talk show host now retired Fig seems to have more time for touring, which is a great bonus for overseas music fans. On bass is celebrated Nashville session musician Michael Rhodes, while Bonamassa’s biggest coup is surely acquiring the services of Stevie Ray Vaughen’s former Double Trouble keyboard player Reese Wynans on piano and Hammond organ.
Bonamassa notes that he seems to have a bigger band every time he comes back here, and tonight the sound is further boosted by a two piece brass section – Trumpet player Lee Thornburg and Sax man Paulie Cerra – and two excellent backing singers, including the aforementioned Mahalia Barnes, daughter of Cold Chisel frontman, Jimmy.
It’s Wynans who opens the show with an atmospheric keyboard intro before Bonamassa cranks out a twisty lick on a beat up old Strat, and Fig kicks into the rollicking beat of This Train from Blues Of Desperation. Wynans is afforded a smooth solo before the frontman steps to the front for the first of many stellar guitar leads. In technical terms the American is practically without equal on the instrument and he’s more than capable of lightning runs around the fretboard. What’s interesting, however, is the less heralded melody and subtlety in his playing. This Train is a good example with his slick, inventive solo proving as memorable as the propulsive tune that encompasses it.
The guitarist looks cool and relaxed tonight in a trademark fine suit with slicked back hair and his ever-present shades, it’s a simple but effective image which leaves the spotlight on his ever changing arsenal of guitars – nine or ten different stunning axes used tonight, by our count! From the opener the band rattle straight into Eric Clapton’s catchy, almost poppy cut Mainline Florida, where Michael Rhodes contributes some sweet walking bass under the mainman’s solo, and Bonamassa proves equal to the task of delivering the vocal in his own idiosyncratic style.
He uses much of the first half of the show to really dig in to Blues Of Desperation and it’s a delight to hear so many numbers from such a strong album. The Led Zep riffage and typical bluesman lyrics ofMountain Climbing are given even more punch by some great accents from the brass section before giving way to the storming, dynamic album title track. Bonamassa teases atmospheric sounds with minute adjustments on a sea-green Gibson Les Paul in the verses and middle 8, before the band spin on a dime and ramp up to full volume on the crushing chorus where Bonamassa’s massive chords are matched by Fig’s pulsing drumming.
An early highlight is the epic How Deep This River Runs, whose deep, moody verses allow Bonamassa to fully express the smoky tones of his singing voice, while the two backing vocalists really shine with some tremendous gospel-style backing in the exhilarating chorus. The middle section of the song is a twisting, turning whirlwind of scorching guitar and cracking drums, given extra layers by Wynan’s shimmering Hammond playing.
The keyboard player is then given the spotlight on a great, lively cover of Led Zeppelin’s Boogie With Stu, he leads the band into the track with a euphoric rock n’ roll piano intro and is later afforded a solo which is simply magnificent. It’s a thrill to witness such a legendary performer who seems to be enjoying his current gig tremendously.
Bonamassa switches to a Gibson Flying V for a spiralling guitar solo in B.B. King’s Never Make Your Move Too Soon which is just slightly funkier than the original and also adorned by sterling solos from Thornburg and Cerra. Anton Fig, meanwhile, plays a fascinating drum solo following Albert King’sAngel Of Mercy which not only holds the crowd spellbound, but keeps every member of the band onstage watching with rapt attention.
Bonamassa is a man of few words onstage – strange given that he’s quite a raconteur offstage! – but does take a couple of minutes to introduce the band and pay tribute to Edinburgh, one of his favourite cities to visit. The last two of his own compositions to make an appearance tonight are the earthy Dust Bowl – which is given a noir makeover with mournful jazz trumpet playing from Thornburg – and, before that, the big-band blues of Love Ain’t A Love Song from 2014’s Different Shades Of Blue. This is a particular highlight as, after a whirling Hammond Organ solo, from Wynans, Bonamassa drops the sound right down and dispenses with his plectrum for a series of sweet fingerpicked licks, little soulful moments which explode into a short flurry of notes before he reigns himself, then repeats the process, each time varying his approach to layer up the solo, bit by bit. It’s frankly amazing.
The latter third of the show features a stack of excellent, fun tracks. Eric Clapton is saluted with blasts through Little Girl – which suits Bonamassa and his black Gibson ES-335 down the ground, it’s a joy to see him play the old Bluesbreakers number – and another left field choice in the commercial-sounding but enjoyable Pretending. These are followed by an extended Led Zeppelin section as Bonamassa performs an instrumental showcase which melds Zep’s White Summer/Black Mountain Side with his own Django. He takes it from a thick octave intro played on a red Gibson Thunderbird, to a peak of searing lead guitar, then back to the tender notes of Django. It’s a sparkling performance, solidly backed by Fig and Rhodes.
They then close out the main set by bouncing into a storming How Many More Times with Bonamassa’s angular take on the riff brilliantly complemented by Rhodes’ slightly more rounded feel and the frontman doing a great job of making the song his own and not trying to outdo a young Robert Plant in the vocal stakes (who could?!).
For a loudly demanded encore the entire ensemble return to the stage and perform a sprawling, beautiful version of B.B. King’s Hummingbird. The song’s a little heavier in Bonamassa’s hands but the backing singers and horn section give it an awesome gospel feel and the frontman delivers the lead vocal with real passion. As for his final extended guitar solo, even as the gig goes well over the two hour mark it’s still mesmerising.
Joe Bonamassa cares deeply about his art. He sees it as his mission to carry on the work of his blues heroes and he pays fantastic tribute to many of them tonight, while also making the case for his own legacy with outstanding music from his recent solo work. There’s no messing about, no support bands, no frills beyond some decent stage lighting. It’s all about the man and his music, and the packed out audience in the Usher Hall tonight clearly wouldn’t have it any other way!
Mainline Florida (Eric Clapton cover)
Blues of Desperation
No Good Place for the Lonely
How Deep This River Runs
Boogie With Stu (Led Zeppelin cover)
Never Make Your Move Too Soon (B.B. King cover)
Angel of Mercy (Albert King cover)
Love Ain’t a Love Song
Little Girl (John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers cover)
Pretending (Eric Clapton cover)
How Many More Times (Led Zeppelin cover)
Hummingbird (B.B. King cover)
Joe Bonamassa will perform the remaining concerts on his current UK tour as follows –
Thursday 20th April London Royal Albert Hall (Sold Out)
Friday 21st April London Royal Albert Hall (Sold Out)
Saturday 22nd April Blackpool Opera House (Sold Out)
Monday 24th April Sheffield Arena
Images Lara Vischi
Review Gary Murie and Cameron Arndt