June 22, 2024

Blues supremo Joe Bonamassa must be starting to run out of ways to go above and beyond. It has only been a year since he released his last movie-quality live extravaganza, Tales Of Time, filmed at the spectacular open-air Red Rocks auditorium in Colorado. Since then, he has released the album Blues Deluxe Vol. 2, and played his 15-year anniversary set at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Now we have another spectacular live event on both audio and video, filmed with a 40-piece orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, within sight of the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.

Clearly, a massive amount of preparation has gone into it. The production, sound recording and camera work are Hollywood quality, but it’s not just that – it’s the song selection, the orchestration and the sheer excellence of the performance. His usual band are all there: Lemar Carter on drums and Calvin Turner on bass, the incomparable Reese Wynans on keys, and second guitarist Josh Smith. The ever-reliable Jade MacRae and Dannielle DeAndrea pick up the backing vocal duties, so indispensable to Bonamassa’s sound.

Photo by Jenise Jensen

It soon becomes clear that this is not part of any tour to promote Blues Deluxe Vol.2; indeed, only one song from that album appears in this release. No, the set has been curated to use the orchestral backing to maximum effect, so the songs this time are taken from across his history, mostly slow and dramatic, bordering on symphonic when given this treatment. It also means that the lyrical content is pretty heavy on the downbeat side of life, so be prepared for drama rather than levity. The CD opens with a 2-minute intro specially written for the occasion, which the video release prefaces with a short opening sequence filmed in the environs. Then the orchestra drops almost completely as the crunchy, opening guitar riff to Curtain Call kicks in, from 2021’s Time Clocks. One might have forgiven Joe and the boys for starting with an easy one to work their way into the vibe, but no, Curtain Call is a 7½ minute epic even on the original record; this version adds another minute and a half with a dramatic, climbing violin section alongside Joe’s slide guitar. Josh Smith plays a highly effected guitar solo at the end, which is mixed down to become part of the overall sound.

This is followed by another eight minute epic, the slow and morose Self-Inflicted Wounds from 2018’s Redemption. Joe’s guitar is more up-front and central in this one, and Jade MacRae sings a solo spot at the conclusion, the first of two showcases from the Australian powerhouse. No Good Place For The Lonely is a slow, minor-key blues with a stupendous guitar solo and plenty of Hammond Organ in the background.

They delve right back to 2007 after that, with a cover of Chris Whitley’s Ball Peen Hammer, from Bonamassa’s Sloe Gin album. It may not be an obvious choice, but there is a great bit of deep, deep brass followed by a Celtic jig section played on a pair of piccolos, which adds an incredible additional texture. The same can be said of the opening solo trumpet work on The Last Matador Of Bayonne, which has a definite Spanish flavour emphasised by occasional use of castanets.

Photo by Christie Goodwin

And so it goes on. Jade gets another vocal solo towards the end on If Heartaches Were Nickels, (yep, the downbeat song titles just keep on coming). The Ballad Of John Henry is always a great number, and this version includes a tremendous guitar solo, followed by a sudden drop to an entirely orchestral section, to rapturous applause. The notably flashy guitar work on this number brings home the fact that Joe has been remarkably restrained throughout the set – sure, the guitar has seen plenty of use, but he is consciously tailoring his playing to the orchestral backing, rather than competing with it.

They go slightly more upbeat with Twenty-Four Hour Blues, the only number from Joe’s current album, then bring the whole thing to a rousing conclusion with the classic Sloe Gin.

The release is available on double blue vinyl, CD+DVD, or CD+BluRay. On the CD version, the applause is rapidly faded out straight after the big crash ending, which only just occurs in time; the single disc runs to 80 minutes, which is about the maximum for a standard CD. The video version includes more atmos at the end, and gradually drifts off into some lengthy credits, running to just under an hour and a half in all. Check out the video to Prisoner at the foot of this page, which Joe originally recorded for his 2011 album Dust Bowl, but which you may recognise from the Barbra Streisand version, taken from the movie Eyes Of Laura Mars.

Neither the CD nor the video though, contain any gaps between the numbers, no chat from Joe, and no band intros or call-outs for specific performances. It’s unthinkable that Joe wouldn’t have demanded an ovation for Jade MacRae’s solos, or for the brilliant orchestral performances, but any audience interaction is edited out, and the whole evening distilled to concentrated music. What remains is 80 minutes of stunning crossover between superlative blues rock and mighty orchestral work.

Once again, massive credit to Joe, who is still right at the top of his game; to his excellent band, and to his long-term production team of Roy Weisman and Kevin Shirley. Full video, or audio only, this is a treat.

Joe Bonamassa – Live At The Hollywood Bowl With Orchestra is available now from J&R Adventures