I am becoming increasingly aware that I sound like a broken record when talking about Joe Bonamassa. The reason is not just that his studio output is excellent and getting better with each passing year, or even that his live shows are so consistently superb, but also that he seems to have the gift of showering a little stardust on pretty much everything he touches. OK, not everyone is into the blues, neither is everyone impressed by showboating guitarists. But it’s easy to be won over by someone who has not only won pole position in a crowded niche, but who stretches the genre to its limits in every direction, bringing in elements of hard rock, country, prog, jazz fusion, folk and world music. Nor by a businessman whose not-for-profit foundation strives to progress the careers of young musicians who are similarly determined to keep the blues alive, and which has financed well over 200 performing musicians through the current gigging desert. Veteran blues-woman Joanna Connor has suddenly found herself, at long last, propelled into the limelight under Joe’s production and marketing expertise, while his recent Guitar Man documentary pays tribute to the many who have helped him along the way.
Stymied like everyone else by the COVID crisis, Joe continues not only to perform, in this case via the virtual medium of the internet, but changes his setup once again to keep things as interesting and as varied as possible. And while virtual concerts can never replace live gigging for sheer, visceral excitement, this online gig from Austin, Texas, attempts to make up the deficit by full-on production, with pin-sharp studio-quality sound and excellent camera work. The atmosphere is provided by an actual live audience of 700 socially-distanced spectators, sounding more like a pub crowd than a theatre audience it’s true, but all the more human for that.
Anyone who has been to a Bonamassa gig in recent years will know he always uses a four-piece band setup at least; drums, bass and keyboards in addition to himself on guitar and vocals. In most cases, he utilises a three-piece backing vocal troupe and two-piece horn section, and sometimes guest musicians as well. For this occasion though, he has stripped it all back to the power-trio format a la Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience or early Rush. Regular drummer Anton Fig is a welcome sight behind the kit, whereas flat-capped Nashville bassist Steve Mackey is, I admit, a new name to me. Joe’s one single concession to the big band sound is to draft in Jade MacRae on backing vocals, who was touring with him when the lockdown struck and has been unable to get back to her native Australia for a year.
Streamed on the second of two nights at Austin City Limits live at the Moody Theatre, Joe elects to kick off the gig in fairly muted style with Oh, Beautiful, from his 2014 album Different Shades Of Blue. This one calls for some heavy guitar effects, for which he fires up a fairly unfamiliar Z axe for the first and last time of the night – the rest of the set will be performed on a wide variety of classic Fenders and Gibsons from his extensive collection. The opening number is followed by Love Ain’t A Love Song from the same album, then there is a pause in the action while Bonamassa has a bit of a chat. He reminisces about the first live stream he did, in front of 2,100 cardboard cut-out figures, representing the online ticket buyers, and including his parents in the front row!
The performance resumes with Gary Moore cover Midnight Blues, which Joe explains he has been doing in tribute to Moore ever since the latter’s premature death in 2011. The slow rock number Lookout Man! from the current album follows, then there is another pause for chat about the next number – Beyond The Silence is an epic, with extended solos and some pin-sharp stops. Joe categorically denies, with a mischievous smirk, that they came out and recorded a take of it at 6:30pm ‘for safety’, which leads us to think they did exactly that, but without his regular bass player Michael Rhodes, and with the concert conceivably on display for ever more in internet-land, there is plenty of potential for disaster. In the event though, the opposite happens. Mackey has been playing his role quietly and without fuss or showmanship throughout, but his awesome skills are on display for any who care to listen: the first tight stop introduces a big fusion jam wig-out, and the bass playing is immense, not only stretching out while at the same time staying totally grounded and rock-steady, but also following the guitar in sympathetic counterpoint. The guy is a revelation.
Tom Waits’ Jockey Full Of Bourbon follows, then the slow blues Wandering Earth from 2010’s Black Rock, which is notable because it is the first time it has been played live. It’s all been great so far, but the whole thing clicks up a gear with the next number, Pain And Sorrow. Joe plays a distinctly Robin Trower-ish extended intro by himself, but the particularly fluid solo in the main number includes some close-up camera work and really fast shredding, for my money the highlight of the set so far.
He explains that Miss You, Hate You was written about an ex-girlfriend from his days in the band Bloodline. The vocal verses have a notably country flavour, but they go off-piste into another fusion jam, including a tasteful drum solo with some fancy rim-work. Anton Fig is certainly one of the greats, but he doesn’t drag it out for long. The next number underlines what the show has been missing so far, and that’s a real, fast, rock’n’roll number. This is rectified by this cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Scuttle Buttin’, which leads into the excellent slow 12-bar Blues De Luxe, first recorded by Jeff Beck as far back as 1968, with Rod Stewart on vocals in the days when he had real rock credentials. Whoops of appreciation greet Joe’s solo, and it turns out he hasn’t played this one live for 20 years either.
There is a strange fusion of technologies next, as Joe waves his Les Paul over a theremin fed through an echo box, producing some eerie howls both in the intro and during the meat of this last number, The Ballad Of John Henry. Jade MacRae contributes some Great Gig In The Sky style emotive vocals, also to great applause, and Joe drops into a non-pentatonic mode for the final solo, just to show he can. That’s the regular set over, but he’s only just got going.
The band goes off and the lights go down for the sake of form, but the encore starts after a minute, with Joe playing manic guitar in the dark – the light fades back in to reveal him playing Woke Up Dreaming on an acoustic guitar capoed at the first fret; this rhythm/lead hybrid is genuinely some of the best guitar he has played all evening. Then they all relax and finish on a faithful cover of Cream’s rendition of Crossroads, which features some more awesome bass work from Mackey.
OK, we all know the online format is a mixed blessing. It can’t ever replace live gigging for atmosphere or anticipation. On the other hand, you can listen as loud as you like in your favourite armchair with no travelling involved, the view is better and it’s a damn sight cheaper per ticket too. Then in most cases, the gig remains open for a while; in this case the ticket entitles the listener to watch the gig as many times as he or she fancies for the next month. A more expensive ticket doesn’t get you a better seat, but the prices are tiered to include some merch through the post if that’s your thing. Overall, this is what we call making the best of things. And Bonamassa gigs are always the best of things.