On the cover of Joe Bonamassa‘s latest album stands a man, alone, in a barren wasteland, his back to the world. It might represent the emotions that went into creating the LP. (“I’m going through some other stuff in my life I didn’t expect to be going through,” he said at the time. “It’s a rising, it’s contrition, it’s acceptance, it’s everything. It’s painful, but knowing that there’s a rising coming.”)
But the image clearly doesn’t represent his place in the musical landscape. Bonamassa’s not out in the wilderness. Instead, he’s beloved enough to play three successive nights at Royal Albert Hall. And people have travelled far and wide to see him, including an older married couple who politely approached him at Los Angeles’ airport last week to request he not “fuck up” the performance.
He certainly doesn’t. The singer-guitarist and his band put on an exemplary display to celebrate 10 years since he first headlined the iconic London venue. That night of 4 May 2009, he admits tonight, “changed my whole life, changed my whole career”.
The proof’s in the numbers: in the decade since, he’s spent enough time in studios to record 16 albums (six solo, three with Beth Hart, four with Black Country Communion, three with Rock Candy Funk Party) and enough time on the road to release 15 live collections.
More importantly, the proof’s in the room: there’s just so much love for Bonamassa from the audience and his long-time musicians alike. The result is an emotionally charged atmosphere that infiltrates the entire performance, each song sounding somehow more intense than the next.
Not that he starts off slowly. A high-octane rendition of Muddy Waters’ Tiger in Your Tank gets the show on the road, before the 41-year-old virtuoso debuts four songs from new album Redemption.
The brassy King Bee Shakedown absolutely buzzes with excitement, the gritty heavy rocker Evil Mama is a tip of the hat to Led Zeppelin, and Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should is a modern blues masterpiece built around the interplay between Bonamassa’s searing licks and Reese Wynan’s warm organ swells that, at one point, develop into a majestic solo.
Even more majestic is Self Inflicted Wounds. Already a highlight of the album, the slow-burning ballad becomes truly visceral in the live arena. Beginning with a single cornet (courtesy of Lee Thornburg) that makes way for an impassioned Bonamassa vocal, it slowly ascends towards a screaming guitar solo and culminates in a soulful showcase for backing vocalists Jade MacRae and Mahalia Barnes that’s almost on a par with Pink Floyd’s Great Gig In The Sky.
A runaway This Train, kept on the rails by breakneck drumming from Anton Fig, launches a three-song mini-set from 2016’s Blues Of Desperation. The swampy title track is the murkiest in his repertoire, pivoting from brooding verses (with Michael Rhodes coaxing eerie sounds from his bass guitar) to gut-punching choruses (with Fig playing with more swing than ever before). And How Deep The River Runs soars on the voices of MacRae and Barnes before stinging with Bonamassa’s incisive soloing.
The instantly recognised Sloe Gin heralds a return to some of the blues classics Bonamassa has made his own. Delaney & Bonnie’s Well, Well is good-time honky-tonk, BB King’s Nobody Loves Me but My Mother adds a touch of gospel (and more fine piano work from Wynans), and sunny John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers favourite Little Girl sounds simply effortless.
Most special though is the brass-laden take on Albert King’s I Get Evil, and not just because of the duetting between Bonamassa and his two backing singers. He uses the song to introduce 14-year-old local Toby Lee, a guitarist who looks as calm and collected as the man whose name’s on the marquee, even during his own solo and the nimble guitar duelling that caps off the funk fest.
The next truly awe-inspiring moment in a night of “how did they just do that?” performances comes during the encore. Bonamassa steps out alone, playing an acoustic guitar for the first time in the show, and proceeds to fly through Woke Up Dreaming as heard on the live album Live At Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening. He tackles the frenetic song with such speed and precision that one’s left wanting a slow motion replay to catch up with what’s just happened.
It’s an experience that can only be followed by the towering Mountain Time. Also played at that first Royal Albert Hall show, tonight the epic is elevated by 10 years of hard-earned experience and an A-grade band who are completely in synch. By the time Bonamassa and his musicians take their final bows, the shared warmth in the room is as undeniable as the singer-guitarist’s prodigious talent. Expect an even bigger celebration (six successive nights?) in 2029.
Review of Joe Bonamassa at Royal Albert Hall on 24th April 2019 by Nils van der Linden. Photos by Kalpesh Patel.