With his old-school belting voice and incredible guitar prowess, Joe Bonamassa has quickly become one of America’s best exports of British-style blues. It’s been only a little over a decade since he released his first solo album, A New Day Yesterday, but 12 albums and a Gibson signature model guitar later, it’s clear that the kid whom B.B. King dubbed “one of a kind” has grown up. Judging by the size and age of the crowd at Boston’s Wang Theater, I could tell that Joe commands the spirit and feel of the classic rock days and the energy in the crowd was something I had rarely felt before.
The lights went down and Joe ripped into a short solo, his first of many Jimmy Page-esque moments—this one baring a stark resemblance to Zeppelin’s live “Heartbreaker” solos. The rest of the band joined in, starting off the concert strong with “Cradle Rock.” I must admit, by the end of his first solo, I was indeed enamored with his playing. I got it. His soloing is more restrained and mature than what I’ve heard in the past—not without his trademark “Eric Johnson” fast licks, of course, but his technique is more integrated with the rest of his playing. He can play for fifteen minutes and never repeat himself, but he also counters this ability by building his solos thematically, much like a jazz player.
After about ten minutes, he grabbed his slide, exhibiting equal dexterity as he did with his fingers (and in standard tuning, no less), while drummer Tal Bergman and bassist Carmine Rojas shared a groove that verged on telepathy.
The crowd was warmed up by song number three, so Joe slowed it down, starting off once again with a short solo, this time more delicate. As the crowd realized what the song was—“Midnight Blues,” by Joe’s friend, the late, great Gary Moore—they were coaxed into spontaneous rounds of applause. A pensive chill came down on the room; Joe was stepping lightly with his playing, as if he were paying his respects to Gary. Staying true to himself—and to Moore—the extended solo eventually climaxed into a furious peak reminiscent of Zeppelin’s live versions of “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” During this tune, I realized something else about Joe’s remarkable skill: his vocals rival his guitar playing. Throughout his entire set, Joe’s vocal intonation was spot-on.
Next came a heavy 6/8 blues entitled “Slow Train” along with the title track of the album Dust Bowl. Great as they were, five straight songs of heavy guitar left me wanting to hear what keyboardist Rick Melick, sitting behind a tasty-looking B3, could whip up. An obvious crowd favorite, “Sloe Gin” began with (yet another great) extended solo with only Rhodes backing him up.
Finally, after seven songs, Joe addressed the audience. The break was welcome after such an onslaught. He proceeded to tell the crowd about a run in with a female fan: “We’re so grateful you could come here all the way from England. You don’t sound English though…” That got a laugh from the audience, as well as a sort of unseen nod from the guitarists in the crowd that we just heard yet another testament to the fact that he plays British-style blues better than anyone in the scene today. He then introduced us to the next song, “The Ballad of John Henry,” by saying “Twelve albums, 134 recorded songs…No hits! This is the closest I’ve gotten to one.”
When Joe pulled out his acoustic guitar he absolutely floored me. And by floored, I mean, astounded. Confounded. Blown away. This part of the concert stole the show, no question about it. I knew that Joe had good technique, but not like this. He somehow managed to wrap up Tommy Emmanuel, Al Di Meola, Paul Gilbert, and Stevie Ray Vaughn into one single song—though, most of this “song” was a collection of very fast alternate picking licks, slapping riffs, and interesting chord/melodies and harmonics. The short vocal portion of the song was entitled “Woke up Dreaming,” though the ridiculously fast guitar riff overshadowed his singing.
After one more song, Joe came out for the requisite encore wearing a Bruins jersey, causing his Boston fans to somehow love him even more. The highlight of the encore, and the second real highlight of the show, was the band’s take on Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” (sans violin bow, unfortunately). He even managed to work in some “Whole Lotta Love”-esque Theremin action, bewildering the apparent non-guitarists in the crowd.
I left the venue feeling inspired and excited. Joe Bonamassa has absolutely crossed a new threshold in his playing—a musical maturity level present in all aspects of his playing that most guitarists can only hope to achieve, and he’s done so before the age of 35. That said, his set list could have used some fat trimming and his guitar playing would be no less impressive if he let his band off their reigns a bit more. But his incredible guitar and vocal skills, command of the audience, perfect tone, and likeable personality easily made up for those negative points. I’ll absolutely go see him again, and you should too if you get a chance.