All photos by Laurence Harvey.
Joe elicits some howling effects from a theremin by holding his Telecaster in the sensor field…
At last, the gigs are flowing again after a two-year Covid-induced drought, and one of the highlights of this resurgence is always going to be the blues master, Joe Bonamassa, returning to the UK. A pretty limited tour this one, comprising just five gigs, one each in Glasgow, Cardiff and Brighton, then two nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Friday 6th May saw the final Albert Hall gig, with Joe giving great value as always – the band line-up has been revised somewhat since Joe’s last visit to these shores in April 2019, but you can guarantee that only the finest players get to share a stage with the man. Ace drummer Anton Fig’s place behind the kit has been has been taken by the rock-steady Greg Morrow who, by his bearded grin, appears to be as happy as anyone to be here; Steve Mackey, who first came to my attention in Joe’s band for the live streaming concert from Austin City Limits last year, takes the place of long-standing bassist Michael Rhodes. Ever-present backing singer Jade Macrae is joined this time by Dani De Andrea, a new face to me, but the pairing are as cool and synchronised as ever, both in their voices and their movements. Boogie wizard Reese Wynans retains his place at the keyboards, but the horn section is replaced by Joe’s friend and production collaborator Josh Smith on second guitar.
The band walks on to the appropriate strains of ‘Welcome Back’, and boot up the proceedings with Evil Mama from Joe’s 2018 album Redemption; it’s a great opening number, but the Albert Hall’s infamous acoustics play havoc with the mix for a while, with both Joe’s vocals and guitar sunk deep in the mix. Joe then swaps his classic Gibson SG for a cherry red hollow-bodied Gibson for the atmospheric Dust Bowl, then swaps again to a Stratocaster for the up-tempo Love Ain’t A Love Song. The sound is getting sorted out by now, just in time for Midnight Blues, a proper, traditional slow blues, in which Joe’s gold Les Paul really cuts through – for all his collection of classic axes, he stays with the Les Paul and the Strat for most of the rest of the set.
Having said that, a twangy Fender Telecaster comes out for the first number from the current album, The Heart That Never Waits from Time Clocks. The atmosphere of this track rests on the expert shoulders of the backing singers, but the showmanship is also kicking in now, as the band brings the volume down to a whisper, with Joe playing some impressively fast licks over the top. The solo brings a roar of applause, at which Joe removes his shades, takes off his guitar, gives a grin and a wave, and makes to walk offstage! It’s great that he’s comfortable enough to have a bit of a laugh and a joke in this setting, especially as, apart from one single “Thank you!” he hasn’t spoken yet.
The next track, the up-tempo I Didn’t Think She Would Do It, from Royal Tea, reveals the reason for a second guitar, with some sweet harmonies in the intro. Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should showcases Wynans’ Hammond skills, as well as containing the best guitar solo of the evening so far, and to be honest, I think this is where the band really gets going and the gig clicks up a gear, with another standing ovation at the end of the song. This is followed by the classic Sloe Gin, a slow blues that Joe always nails – this time though, there’s an interesting detail in the extended ending, as he holds up two fingers in a signal to drummer Morrow, and the track concludes with a two-beat crash.
Now it’s time for some chat, in which Joe introduces the smiling band with praise and respect all round, stating categorically that Josh Smith is the best guitarist on stage tonight. The next song gives Smith a chance to shine a little, as he and Joe both play a solo in Conversation With Alice. But really, the whole evening reaches a crescendo on the next number, for me the best track of the night, the bluegrass-tinged boogie of Lonely Boy from Royal Tea. Wynans pulls off a corker of a piano solo, followed by a much longer and excellent guitar solo from Smith. Joe follows both with a superb shred on his Telecaster, and then the whole band segues seamlessly into another classic to close the main set, the Ballad Of John Henry, in which Joe elicits some howling effects from a theremin by holding his Telecaster in the sensor field.
It’s inevitable that an encore will follow of course, and this is provided by Joe coming back to the stage alone, with just an acoustic guitar, and offering a stunning exhibition of rapid strumming and finger-work dexterity with Woke Up Dreaming, from his 2003 album Blues Deluxe. Then, halfway through the encore, he stops for another good-natured chat, describing how that number and the following one were written in the same collaboration session with Will Jennings, who reportedly announced his retirement at the same time. When Joe, taken aback, asked him, “Why go now?” he replied that his ship had come in, as his lyrics to My Heart Will Go On, sung by, as he said, “some Canadian chick” for the film Titanic had effectively made his fortune, so he could afford to retire. It was an amusingly-narrated anecdote, followed by the second song from that writing session, the country-tinged ambient ballad Mountain Time from Joe’s second album. They go straight into the song instead of playing the Pink Floyd-influenced extended intro that sometimes goes with this track; perhaps this wasn’t the time, as the climactic number of the night and of the tour, but it was still a beautiful warm-down from a powerful gig. Welcome back indeed to Joe and the band, and we hope to see you many more times!