November 4, 2006
I didn't get turned on to Joe Bonamassa until the release of his second solo album, 2002's So, It's Like That. My copy also came with a bonus DVD of A New Day Yesterday Live, which was recorded during his 2001 tour in support of his major-label debut album of the same name. I had already heard great things about Bonamassa, but listening to that album for the first time made me realize this kid was really something special. I eventually popped in the concert DVD, only really expecting a short, low budget recording, but was pleasantly surprised to find a nearly two-hour, professionally shot concert. As impressed as I was with the So, It's Like That CD, this live DVD completely blew me away.
Bonamassa was a legitimate guitar prodigy by the age of six, and was opening for B.B. King before his thirteenth birthday. Now a grizzly, 29-year-old veteran of the blues-rock scene, Bonamassa has reached an almost insane level of guitar prowess, and his November 4 show at Blues Alley easily surpassed my highest expectations. To be honest, when I listen to most of Joe's studio albums, I always think to myself "this stuff is great, but it could be so much better" — if only he could capture the power of his incredible live performances more. Seeing him perform live for the first time left me simply awestruck. Yeah, he is that good.
Tucked away in a dark alley in the heart of Georgetown, Blues Alley has been the premier jazz/blues club in the Washington D.C. metro area since 1965. Seating what seems like about 20 people — the capacity is actually about 160 — the place is one of the most intimate venues you will ever catch a major act in. My wife and I arrived about an hour before the scheduled show time, and most of the first-come, first-serve table seats were already taken. We were lucky enough to be ushered up toward the front of the stage, just to the right, damn near touching distance from the band.
On the strength of his excellent new 2006 release You & Me, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues chart, Bonamassa was scheduled to play four straight nights, two shows per night, at Blues Alley. I was there for the second night (Saturday), first show (8 PM). As we were just settling in, sipping on our first round of drinks, Joe himself walks out on stage dressed in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, as if the crowd would not even notice him, and proceeds to do soundcheck with one of his Gibson Les Pauls. We all stared in amazement as Joe nonchalantly fired off these killer guitar licks only about ten feet from my table. He had to look up and smile a few times as some of us cheered him on throughout this brief, but amazing, soundcheck.
In preparation for the show, I found some of Bonamassa's recent setlists on the web, which all indicated he has been ending most of his shows with a medley of ZZ Top's "Just Got Paid" and Led Zeppelin's "Dazed & Confused." This was going to be too cool, I thought. Well, at 8 PM sharp, Joe and his brand new rhythm section of Mark Epstein (bass), and Bogie Bowels (drums) took the stage, and, to my amazement, kicked off the show with that very jaw-dropping medley. It was as much of a surprise as when he broke into Yes' "Heart Of The Sunrise" and "Starship Trooper" during the encore set of his Live At Rockpalast DVD. The power and energy of this opener was astounding, and he wasn't even warmed up yet.
From there, it was a blazing journey through of some of his best old stuff, and on up to the brand new material. Joe made the old Free classic "Walk In My Shadows" his own back on his debut album, A New Day Yesterday, but this muscular performance really made me sit up and take notice. The acoustics in Blues Alley sound phenomenal and each instrument stood out boldly in the mix. Joe's guitar has never sounded better and he played with passion and enthusiasm, as if this was his only show — not just one of eight. He masterfully manipulates his volume, tone, distortion, and picking technique, which allows him to effortlessly glide between heavy rock grooves, delicate finger-picked interludes, and scorching blues solos throughout the show.
For this show, Joe chose "So Many Roads" and "Bridge To Better Days" to represent the new You & Me album, and they are two of my favorite cuts. "So Many Roads" is the classic slow-burning blues number, originally made famous by Otis Rush, and Joe took it to a whole new level this night with enough improvisation and extended soloing to nearly make it a new song. This is kind of his live trademark — to build on a song's basic framework, crank up the intensity, and make it sound fresh every night. He pulls it off as good as anyone I've ever seen. "Bridge" sounded phenomenal, but I was disappointed that they skipped over the wonderful harmony vocal chant, "better days are comin' now," during the chorus. I guess he is not that confident with the vocal abilities of his new band members.
As it has been the highlight of many of his other shows, "Mountain Time" was the highlight of this show for me. One of his best originals, and the only song from his So, It's Like That album to make the set, this one starts of with a clean, acoustic, almost country-rock tone, and continues to build in intensity until an explosive climax brings it all home. Bonamassa also carries a powerful set of blues-rock pipes, and this song featured one of his most impressive vocal performances of the night. He turned the Ian Anderson-penned "New Day Yesterday" into a fiery, Cream-style jam on his debut album, and this night he even infused some tasty "Spoonful" passages to really put it over the top.
For "Miss You Hate You" and "Woke Up Dreaming", Joe took the stage alone, armed with only his Takamine acoustic guitar, and dazzled the crowd with his amazing acoustic touch. During "Dreaming," he just flat-out showed off, laying down some of the fastest, most precise, licks this side of Yngwie Malmsteen. I could have listened to the acoustic stuff all night, but when he eventually cut loose on his slide guitar masterpiece, "The River", all I could do was shake my head in awe. Joe uses his gorgeous Chandler Lectraslide guitar on this one, which emits a wonderful lap steel-like guitar tone, and when cranked up and played with a slide, it sounds like a frigging guitar orchestra.
With his Lectraslide still on, they segued directly into the final song of the set, John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell", which he first covered on his 2003 album Blues Deluxe. "The River" and "Burning Hell" are performed as if they are two parts of the same long song, since they both feature gentle finger-picked sections, near gospel-like singing, and some of the most amazing slide-guitar playing I have ever seen.
Bonamassa played for about an hour and twenty minutes this set, which is about all this two-show-per-night gig would allow. How I wish I had bought tickets to both shows, like many others did. Joe is not only one of the world's best guitar players, but he is also one of the most charismatic and down to earth performers in the business. During the show, he commented about how just three years ago, "when he was a nobody," he actually used to live just down the street from Blues Alley. "My girlfriend, at the time, would have been really impressed had I been able to sell out this place back then."
I would get out and see this guy the first chance you get, because I don't think smaller venues like Blues Alley are going to be able to contain Joe Bonamassa much longer. I suspect his tickets are going to get pretty damn hard to come by very soon, so walk, drive, fly, or hitchhike to see him — just make sure that you do see Joe Bonamassa while you still can.
Just Got Paid / Dazed & Confused
Walk In My Shadows
So Many Roads
Bridge To Better Days
New Day Yesterday
Miss You Hate You
Woke Up Dreaming