Joe Bonamassa ®Laurence Harvey

Joe Bonamassa: Don’t fly away

Joe Bonamassa | Royal Albert Hall | 20 April 2017

(Photo credit: Laurence Harvey)

Joe Bonamassa has no trouble selling out two successive nights at Royal Albert Hall. He could certainly afford giant video screens to show his flying fingers in extreme closeup. Or, at the very least, his name in lights.

But this man on the precipice of 40 is not that kind of performer. A class act who’s clearly paid attention to the finest detail, from the subtly monogrammed music stands to the backing singers’ perfectly synchronised sashaying, he’s intentionally created an environment that doesn’t distract from why everybody’s really here: the music.

So we get tasteful lighting, impeccable sound, and some of the finest musicians – who, vitally, aren’t relegated to the shadows. A real band rather than a bunch of hired guns, they play with an empathy that matches their talent, keeping each other honest and in the moment. That includes the guy out front too, Bonamassa’s breathtaking playing somehow balancing dynamism and precision with a real warmth and soul. Like when ‘No Good Place For The Lonely’ suddenly bursts into flames with a finger-singeing outro solo that ends with much of the audience up on their feet in a standing ovation, while the remainder sit in stunned silence. Or when a hip-shaking ‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’ detours into a bluesy solo that, not for the first or last time tonight, has Bonamassa experimenting with contrasts in speed and intensity that only emphasise his versatility. Or when Clapton’s sleek ‘Pretending’ becomes the launchpad for an incomprehensible six string showcase while drummer Anton Fig and the cheerleading brass section lead the audience in keeping time. Or when, during the course of Led Zeppelin’s ‘How Many More Times’, the frontman does what can only be described as a flurry of magic tricks: from The Edge-like harmonics to a near-silent breakdown involving much knob twiddling, to brief moments of wielding his axe like a machine gun.

But there’s so much more to tonight’s performance than guitar heroing. The dark ‘Blues Of Desperation’, featuring some black magic from bass player Michael Rhodes and a swampy groove from Fig, is a perfect demonstration of how the eight people up on that stage keep inspiring each other. Similarly, ‘How Deep This River Runs’ is buoyed by the warmth of Reese Winans’ organ, Jade Macrae and Mahalia Barnes’ backing vocals, and the brass combo of Lee Thornburg and Paulie Cerra. The inspired film noir makeover of ‘Dust Bowl’ is led as much by Thornburg’s trumpet as Bonamassa’s guitar. And, from its honky-tonk piano interlude to sax showcase, ‘Boogie with Stu’ certainly spreads the glory, while the thundering conclusion to ‘Angel Of Mercy’ hammers home Fig’s power and dexterity.

The same could be said of Bonamassa’s vocals, especially on the emotionally charged  ‘Never Make Your Move Too Soon’ or incandescent ‘Hummingbird’, and his voice, growing in range and confidence with every passing year, is well on its way to reaching the unbelievable, superhuman heights of the guitar playing on full display tonight.

See Joe Bonamassa live in the UK:
Friday 21 April: London Royal Albert Hall (Sold Out)
Saturday 22 April: Blackpool Opera House (Sold Out)
Monday 24 April: Sheffield Arena – tickets

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