Joe Bonamassa | Greenwich Music Time | 7 July 2016
Photo credit: John Bull
Tribute shows are the stuff of sequined jumpsuits, soulless karaoke backing tapes, and slavish recreations of crowd-pleasing hits.
Joe Bonamassa clearly didn’t get the memo. No contrived nostalgia cash-in, his Salute To The British Blues Explosion is a heartfelt celebration of three men whose music shaped his life: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page.
From the very first chord he hits on the Greenwich Music Time stage, it’s obvious just how much he still loves the songs he first started hearing as a four-year-old in New Hertford, New York. Just as apparent is how well he knows them, so hard-wired into his fingers that he can play these classics in his own unique style, while always honouring the originals – most of which are carefully selected personal favourites, not ‘60s compilation fodder.
So when the guitarist admits that without Beck, Clapton, and Page, he’d probably have become a vacuum cleaner salesman, you believe him. When he recalls the sense of awe watching Cream’s Royal Albert Hall concert film for the first time, you believe him. When he reveals that rehearsals for this show were a real journey through his childhood, you believe him. And when he plays any one of the million-or-so notes he hits tonight, you absolutely believe him.
The setting – the majestic Old Royal Naval College with the sun setting into the Thames – doesn’t hurt matters. Nor does the crack band. Drummer Anton Fig’s playing is tight and, during his enthusiastically received solo, muscular. Bassist Mike Rhodes has real swing and flair. Russ Irwin shifts effortlessly from keys to rhythm guitar. And Reese Wynans – who’s played with another of Bonamassa’s heroes, Stevie Ray Vaughn – lends keyboard textures to songs from Led Zeppelin jam ‘Boogie With Stu’ to John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers’ blues-jive‘Little Girl’.
But it’s Bonamassa who leads from the front, whether he’s singing lines like “the rainbow has a beard” from Cream’s psychedelic ‘SWABLR’ or negotiating the intricacies of ‘Beck’s Bolero’ from one of the first albums in his collection, ‘Truth’. Showing the same laid back confidence with which he approaches his own material, the musician effortlessly handles the shifting moods and tempos of Zeppelin’s blues-rock opus ‘Tea For One’, a timeless reimagining of Clapton’s late ‘80s rocker ‘Pretending’, and the fiery licks of Beck’s ‘Spanish Boots’.
By the time the sun’s set and he’s wrapping up a spectacular two-hour set with one of his signature songs, ‘Sloe Gin’, Bonamassa has done more than wow 5000 people with his six-string skills: as promised, he’s taken them on a musical journey through his childhood.