There’s no support band for this second of two sold-out nights at the Albert Hall. Joe Bonamassa, the new king of the blues and heir to giants like B.B. King and Eric Clapton, is unashamedly the main and only attraction. He charges over the odds for tickets, and performs with little pomp or circumstance beyond a standard lighting rig.
There’s a reason for that. We’re here to listen to one of the guitar’s great masters, an artist who makes no apology for letting songs serve solos. In just the same way that you wouldn’t go to a Pavarotti concert to watch the man dance, you don’t go to see Bonamassa if you don’t want to listen to the electric guitar.
That said, this evening he makes us wait. The set opens with keyboardist Reese Wynans introducing This Train, a choogling blues-rock number (you can thank John Fogerty for that adjective), and for the first half of the song Bonamassa keeps his guitar low in the mix, filling out the rhythm section. Then the bridge comes, and after a brief piano break, he lets rip.
I’m a bit of a guitar nut and I’ve heard a lot of widdly solos, but there is nothing quite like listening to Joe Bonamassa in full swing. He combines virtuosity with beautiful feel, and the result is spine-tingling. My companion and I beamed widely throughout the show. His every flourish and break is important – he doesn’t waste notes, either at Eddie Van Halen warp-speed or a leisurely David Gilmour stroll. Reader, I’m not afraid to admit it – some moments brought tears to my eyes.
Bonamassa is ostensibly a blues artist, but that’s rather a small label for such a wide-ranging tonal palette. If ‘blues’ makes you think of the 12-bar plod at your local pub, you should give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s updated the format, mixing up hard rock, funk, jazz and world folk into his sound, making himself that bit more interesting than your average blues noodler. Tonight he is in HEAVY mode – we get two Led Zeppelin covers, a bit of Free and an opening salvo of Bonamassa originals which all have the durm und strang of hairy early-70s rock.
Not that it’s all bludgeon and no whisper – Dust Bowl features a film-noir trumpet lead, and closer Hummingbird benefits from some truly gorgeous vocals from Mahalia Barnes. Bonamassa also takes the time to tease the crowd, turning the volume down and hovering on little weeping notes while teetering on the edge of the stage. It’s all very engaging, and makes the inevitable return to crash-bang-wallop that much more fun.
Honourable mention must also go to the PA desk – Bonamassa’s sound team clearly know their chips. Even in a cavernous barn like the Albert Hall, the nuances and textures of the music are crisp, and that gorgeous guitar tone can be heard in all its glory.
It’s a privilege to see an artist this much at the top of their game. If the formula ‘blues + rock + guitar solo = boring dad music‘ sounds like something you’ve thought in the past, I can only advise you to try and wipe the slate clean. This was a wonderful evening in the presence of greatness, and the songs are damn good too.
Joe Bonamassa is playing in Blackpool and Sheffield on the 22nd and 24th April, before embarking on a European tour.