Review: Joe Bonamassa – Palais Theatre
Monday 23 September, 2019
Review: Joshua Batten
Photos: Mark Moray, Wicked Rock Photography
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Such is the case for antipodean fans of Joe Bonamassa, the 21st century blues rock titan with more #1 albums on the US blues chart than many of his contemporaries on the mainstream charts. It’s been three years since Joe’s last Australian tour (his longest gap to date between visits), and in that time he’s released his 13th studio album Redemption, and his 15th live album British Blues Explosion, recorded in London and featuring tributes to his original heroes Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. At time of writing, a 16th live album is on its way, recorded on his last Australian tour at the Sydney Opera House.
All this means Joe has over 100 original songs and 200 covers from his catalogue at his disposal. Still, a vast majority of patrons tonight probably won’t be crying out for a deep cut from 2011’s Dust Bowl and they probably couldn’t tell you which Gary Moore song Joe covered on his Greek Theatre live album – they just want to hear some good old-fashioned blues rock guitar playing.
People are still finding their seats when Joe walks on with a Gibson ES-355 in hand and bursts into Muddy Waters’ “Tiger In Your Tank”. Despite sounding slightly sharp in the vocal department, there’s no stress or hesitation when he steps away from the mic for the first of many guitar solos.
For Joe, an artist simultaneously considered the saviour and sacrilege of blues music, the first twenty minutes of the show do nothing to quell either argument, and instead provide the best of both worlds. After “Tiger”, Joe runs through a selection of tunes from Redemption, including classic rocker “Evil Mama”, the Albert King inspired “Just ‘Cos You Can, Don’t Mean You Should”, and “King Bee Shakedown”, a good ol’ boogie-woogie shuffle.
Joe is infamous in the guitar world for his vast collection, and indeed several of his prized axes were on display tonight. Aside from his usual Les Paul’s, a Fender Stratocaster was used to give “This Train” a bright, dirty tone, a Firebird gave the title track from “Blues of Desperation” a majestic, soaring quality, and a Telecaster with a humbucker was used on “Tea for One/I Can’t Quit You Baby”, taking tunes from both the early and later careers of Jimmy Page and giving them the Bonamassa treatment.
Throughout the night, Joe mixed his trademark techniques with a few lesser-known ones. Of course, there were enough volume swells, high screams, tremolo strums and shred-a-thons to fill up the quota, but my favourite moments were the ‘less is more’ bits, like in “Sloe Gin”, played with a steady, slow arrangement and giving Joe a chance to focus on long, sustained notes, emphasising emotion over virtuosity. Another technique worth mentioning was one where Joe performed pull-offs with his left hand, while using his right palm to slide down the neck, creating a Steve Stevens-esque pinch harmonic run. It’s a testament to Joe’s talent that even after over sixty years of the electric guitar’s existence, it still continues to surprise.
Following “Sloe Gin”, Joe took the opportunity to introduce his band, arguing that the marquee out the front of the venue shouldn’t just say his name, but rather “Joe Bonamassa and the Cavalcade of Stars”. Indeed, this is an all-star group of industry professionals onstage, and almost everyone gets a chance to shine throughout the night – veteran bassist Michael Rhodes favors chords in his solos while still holding down rhythm, legendary Stevie Ray Vaughn & Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans wails on his Hammond organ with his right hand while throwing in electric piano stabs with his left, and fill-in drummer Lemar Carter lives up to his reputation as one of LA’s most in-demand session musicians – even though Joe’s right-hand man Anton Fig is sorely missed, Carter brings a youthful energy to the stage with steady, powerful backbeats. On the far left, trumpeter Lee Thornburg and saxophonist Paulie Serra are powerful enough to make it sound like there’s a full brass section coming from the stage, and on the far right, a trio of great Australian lead vocalists provide backing vocals with guts and gusto. Mahalia Barnes takes a solo on “If Heartaches Were Nickels”, giving new life to a song which first appeared on Joe’s debut album back in 2000, and Juanita Tippins is a more than adequate fill-in for Beth Hart, trading lines with Joe on Bonnie & Delaney’s “Well, Well”. Jade McRae is unusually quiet tonight after a headlining single launch from the night before, but she still provides enthusiastic tambourine and syncs in with the other BVs.
After ten songs and over 90 minutes of music, Joe decides we’ve been sitting down long enough and finally brings the audience to its feet with the one-two punch of John Mayall’s “Little Girl” and his own ‘biggest hit’ “The Ballad of John Henry”, both played on a black Les Paul custom, complete with a Nigel Tufnel-esque triple humbucker setup. With horns and BVs in full flight, “John Henry” has never sounded so good, and despite being around for a decade now, remains Joe’s most recognisable song and a perfect main set closer.
Of course, it’s not really over yet, and after a brief stop, Joe comes back out on his own with just an acoustic guitar, heading straight into an eight-minute rendition of “Woke Up Dreaming”, full of fast and furious notes and varying dynamics. Although many of the familiar licks from previous renditions have made it in tonight, there’s surely some improvisation going on to keep everyone on their toes. Finally, the rest of the band comes back on, Joe brings back the Telecaster, and as the first chords of “Mountain Time” ring out across the Palais, the final climb begins. Guitar and bass trade lines halfway through, the horns and backing vocals act as the musical wind in the sonic sky, and the night ends with all nine musicians triumphantly taking a bow together in front of an astonished crowd of over two thousand.
Although it’s been three years since Joe’s last Australian tour, it’s been five years since I’ve seen him in a headline slot. At the time I was afraid that the addition of so many extra musicians would distract Joe from putting on a true rock & roll show, instead leaning too heavily on the blues. Fortunately, he owned the stage tonight, and I’m sure he’ll continue to be a blues rock hero for several years to come. If you’ve never seen Joe Bonamassa live, start saving now and fix that when he comes back for his next tour, which surely won’t be too far away.