You often hear people say that guitar music is dead. It’s a little like saying black will go out of fashion, for whatever genre of music is most popular at any particular time, the truth is a lot of people love theirs to be filled with guitars. That Joe Bonamassa can play two nights at the Brighton Centre bears testimony to the fact. Indeed, it’s a rarity for any act to play more than one night. And this wasn’t the first time Bonamassa has done it.
Billed as the guitar event of the year, that kind of hyperbole is at odds with the man himself. On the first of those two nights, he was about as reserved and conservative as any guitar hero could get. Wearing a suit and open neck shirt, Bonamassa couldn’t have looked less like a rock star if he tried. His only concession was wearing shades.
His stage set up was also decidedly old school. A silk curtain was the backdrop and the stage was filled with artifacts from the past: rows of vintage speakers, two band stands bearing the initials JB and a battered looking Hammond organ.
With no support act or intermission, we were in for a long evening, one that got underway in total darkness with a voice of god apologising that tonight’s One Direction concert has been cancelled. Of course, in just about every way possible, what followed was the antithesis of a 1D gig.
There was no big entrance and no attempt at making a big impression. In fact there were no bells and whistles at all. And there were no screaming fans. Instead we got six guys making music. To be honest, at first it all seemed a little underwhelming. Indeed, the seated audience remained in their chairs throughout.
Without any visual embellishments and with Joe saying nothing between songs, it was left to the music to do the talking. And, it has to be said, the longer it went on, the better it got. There’s no doubting Bonamassa’s prowess on guitar, but something equally impressive about him is his generosity: he gives the other musicians onstage plenty of opportunity to show their skills. That his band consist of the same players who featured on his last studio album Different Shade Of Blue meant there was a genuine feeling of camaraderie onstage.
The twin horns of Lee Thornberg on trumpet and Paulie Cerra on sax were employed on nearly every track and added a rich texture and oomph to the sound. As did the band’s ‘new boy’, 75-year-old Reece Wynans. Playing honky tonk style piano and Hammond organ, there were times when he almost stole the show. In particular, the tone of his grand piano was just about perfect, props to Bonamassa’s sound engineer for the above average sound quality. This was best exemplified by the superb drumming of Anton Fig. Not loud, just perfectly mic’d and balanced. Equally subtle and equally impressive was bassist Michael Rhodes, Surrounding yourself with virtuoso players is a trait of all great musicians and these guys were on point all evening.
Bonamassa himself, it transpires, was somewhat below par, indeed, illness had forced him to cancel the previous night’s show in Bournemouth and he confessed to be “pumped full of chemicals.” He may have been highly medicated, but had he not said so, no one would have known as it didn’t seem to affect his singing or his playing. Indeed, he played for over two hours solid, with hardly a break between songs. Only when he turned around and you saw that the back of his suit jacket was soaking wet, would you have thought something might be wrong.
Musically, it was all about the blues and not surprisingly, the songs tended to feature extended guitar solos. Initially. to my ears at least, many of them sounded pretty similar, but we got more variety as the show went on. Where the opening section could have done with more light and shade, we started to get ejust that towards the end. Indeed, we also got to witness what is undoubtedly the quietest solo I’ve ever heard. It was so quiet you could barely hear it above the breathing of the audience. And then, in that very same song, we got another of those blistering Bonamassa solos.
Starting with a gorgeous Pelham blue Gibson with his name written in mother of pearl on the neck, Joe played quite a few different guitars from his huge collection (apparently, he owns over 130!) Whether it was a vintage Les Paul or a 60s Strat, the tone he got from them was superb. With no real ‘hits’ in the 15 song set, the ones that stood out were those that sounded a little different from the others. And of those, perhaps the best three were the last three beginning with the swinging Love Ain’t A Love Song, the mournfully atmospheric ballad Sloe Gin and the penultimate track, the epic blues rocker The Ballad of John Henry. Here the twin horns and Hammond organ provided a wall of sound, while Bonamassa’s blistering playing was mightily impressive.
He may not be the most cutting edge musician and he’s certainly not breaking any new ground, but almost single-handedly, he’s keeping the blues alive. And that’s something we should all applaud him for and be very happy about!
Words: Gary Marlowe
Photo: Images Out Of The Ordinary
Follow Joe at @JBONAMASSA
Joe’s latest album ‘Live at Radio City Music Hall’ is available now