It is a rare artist who can open AND headline a show with each set sounding quite distinct from the other. Joe Bonamassa is the musician who can do just that starting with a bluegrass/blues acoustic set then ending with a hard-rocking, melt-your-face-off, electric jam session.
As a bluegrass-style version of “Highway to Hell” played, Joe Bonamassa strutted out on stage alone to sit in a half circle of acoustic guitars. With slicked back hair and his shades on, Bonamassa epitomized the persona of a cool blues musician, though the first song “Woke Up Dreaming” recalled a contemporary bluegrass vibe. After handing off his Gibson to an assistant, he snapped up another from the almost dozen guitars behind him.
His acoustic band members joined him for the second song of the night, “Seagull”. Performing with Joe Bonamassa following their success with the Tour de Force series in Europe were: Gerry O’Connor, formerly of the Irish Rovers, on the Irish fiddle, mandolin and banjo. Mats Wester of Sweden, who is a master of the nyckelharpa (Swedish traditional instrument) and mandola, Lenny Castro, seasoned percussionist who has recorded with a slew of the greats, like Eric Clapton, Elton John, and the Rolling Stones. Keyboardist Derek Sherinian, bandmate of Bonamassa’s from Black Country Communion, coaxed bluesy folk sounds from his keyboards, though in the second act he electrified the crowd with his renowned skills on the organ and even the theremin.
Joe said very little between songs, allowing the music to speak for itself. At the end of “Jelly Roll”, each performer showcased their talents with rotating solos. “Black Lung Heartache”, resonated through the packed house with the strains of Appalachian folk and bluegrass with heart-felt mandolin playing by O’Connor. Switching up the tone to a more contemporary feel, “Driving Towards Daylight” had Wester performing with a mandola. Keeping the beat going throughout the acoustic jam, Lenny Castro provided the bass sounds by playing congas, drum box, and foot bass.
After introducing the band and ending the acoustic part of the show, the crowd at the Murat Theater revved up for the anticipated electric set. Beginning with “Dust Bowl”, each song diverged from the studio recorded versions with improvised riffs and drawn-out guitar solos revealing Bonamassa’s unparalleled talent. Slow, soft and sensual sounds on “Who’s Been Talking” and “Midnight Blues” hushed an audience who later heard the high-pitched notes of Bonamassa’s guitar picking.
Members of the electric touring band included: Carmine Rojas, former bassist for David Bowie. Tal Bergman, wildly talented drummer who had previously recorded with Rod Stewart. Castro on congas, tambourine, and various traditional percussion instruments, and Sherinian pulling double-duty pounding the keys.
Bonamassa made his guitar whine with no hisses or pops during “Midnight Blues” Squeals emitted from his Epiphone then turned into hard-driving riffs at the song’s end. Joe grinned as he got into his groove for his fans, letting loose extra helpings of guitar goodness.
“Slow Train” started out with drummer Bergman illuminated while the “train” sounds gathered speed then picked up with a heavy back beat and bass line. Bonamassa performed a fast fingered coda that had listeners counting his fingers looking for the extras that enable his unique abilities.
He introduced the band members before segueing into “Love Ain’t a Love Song”, which featured Sherinian’s organ skills. A conga drum solo followed with a spotlight on Lenny Castro then just the two drummers stayed on stage as the other musicians left stage including Joe. The crowd clapped along with the bongos and Bergman stood up and hit his sticks together in time.
The electric show wrapped up with “Sloe Gin” and “Ballad of John Henry”, a Delta blues-infused story song. A Spanish-style finish to the “Ballad of John Henry” quieted the crowd as they leaned in to catch every last note. Bonamassa patted himself on the back after a particularly high note that earned him whistles and yells from the audience.
The concert ended with Bonamassa saying, “Thank you very much. Good night”, in his low-key style. The musicians, wooed back for an encore, played “Django”, and then united all of the band members, acoustic and electric for “Mountain Time”. Shades of country music in “Mountain Time” along with the nyckelharpa and mandolin vibe brought the musical journey back around to the show’s acoustical section.
Bonamassa fans filed out of the Murat Theater having got their fill of so many musical styles and genres from just one artist and his international-flavored band. There truly was no need for an opening act for Joe Bonamassa, unless it was Joe Bonamassa, unplugged and unfettered by convention.
Review by Andi Williams HHM
Photos by Andi Williams HHM
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