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Music DVD Review: Joe Bonamassa – Live From The Royal Albert Hall

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Joe Bonamassa began his professional career twenty years ago, on November 11th, 1989, when he played his first gig at The Metro club, in Utica, New York. He humorously describes that night in the liner notes of the DVD booklet: "After the show I was not able to bask in the glory of a job well done, nor was I able to chat it up with the ladies that night. I was rushed out of the building Elvis-style into a running powder-blue metallic 1988 Pontiac Bonneville by my mother because bed time was 9:30 PM on a school night."

Did I mention he was twelve years old at the time?

Playing the Royal Albert Hall fulfilled a lifelong dream for Joe Bonamassa. His career path was settled the day his dad played him Cream's Farewell Concert video (also recorded at the Albert Hall), and the young five-year-old was mesmerized by what Eric Clapton was doing on the guitar. On May 4th, 2009 at this same storied music hall, the circle would be completed when Clapton passed the torch to the new blues-rock guitar "god" of the world – one Mr. Joe Bonamassa.

Bonamassa is one of those musicians that I will go to see play every time he comes to my area. Two or three times in the same year? No problem. I'll work the overtime. At the ripe old age of 32, Joe has already produced a wealth of great albums to rock out to in the comfort of your own Lazy Boy recliner, but seeing him play live can be simply transcending. Bonamassa is much more than just a phenomenal guitarist too, he is also a great singer, songwriter, and showman, as you can lay witness to on the best concert DVD of the year, Joe Bonamassa – Live From The Royal Albert Hall.

The DVD begins with some behind-the-scenes footage and Joe giving a brief overview of his career. You then get to follow him as he walks from his dressing room to the stage, about to play the most important show of his life. He is dressed in a crisp white shirt and cool black suite that drapes his recently slimmed down body. His hair is now shorter and neatly slicked back, and his dark sunglasses can barely hide his nervousness this night.

He takes the stage already playing the majestic string bends of "Django," as the keyboardist accompanies him with a haunting melody in the background. The Royal Albert crowd greets him with a standing ovation.

The title track to Bonamassa's latest #1 blues album, The Ballad Of John Henry, is offered up next, and this monstrously drop-tuned guitar anthem changes the mood dramatically. The song is one of his heaviest, and he hammers it home playing his new Joe Bonamassa signature model Les Paul. He even breaks out a Theremin unit on this one, which had me harking back to Jimmy Page's past glory days at the Hall.

The 19-song setlist focuses on The Ballad Of John Henry, arguably his best album to date, and seven of its twelve songs performed. For this special occasion, Bonamassa's normal touring band is augmented by a second drummer and a three member horn section, and the results are amazing.

"So It's Like That," from the 2002 album of the same name, has a more swinging, bluesy feel to it with horns and Hammond organ prominently added to the live mix. 2003's excellent You & Me album is also featured prominently here with five songs, and the first one up, "So Many Roads," is a real showstopper. Joe's solo on this one is just Sick, with a capital S.

The highlight of the show, of course, was when Eric Clapton joined Joe onstage for a rousing performance of "Further On Up The Road." Joe and Eric trade off on lead vocals and guitar solos, making this one of the best performances of this old classic that I have ever seen. I have never seen a bigger grin on old Slowhand's face than when he was trading licks back and forth with Joe during a spontaneous call-and-response section near the end of the song. He must have been thinking, "who is this fucking guy?!"

It's pointless to go into more individual highlights because the entire show is one long highlight reel, but if you only have time for two more numbers before your football games begins, then fast forward to "Blues Deluxe" and "Mountain Time" – two more of my favorites. Just don't be surprised when you miss the first half of your game, when you find yourself transfixed watching the rest this DVD.

It's been a while since I've felt justified in giving a concert DVD a perfect rating in both performance and production, but Joe Bonamassa – Live From The Royal Albert Hall made this one pretty easy for me. You could not have asked for a better production than what you get here

The high-definition, widescreen picture looks stunning, and the camera work ranks up there with the best I have ever seen. The director really knows the music, as each key guitar riff, drum fill, and horn blast is capture with a timely close-up, and is all mixed perfectly with sweeping shots of stage and hall to give you a real sense of being there.

Some of the most amazing camera shots were from the side of the drum kits as Bogie and Anton play the same incredible drum fills in perfect unison, or the wide-angle shot from behind the drum kits, with the entire hall in view, as Joe leans way back towards his guitar amp trying to elicit a little bit of feedback for the epic note he has been holding.

DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, and Dolby Stereo tracks are all expertly mixed by Kevin Shirley, the same guy who produced The Ballad Of John Henry, and the results are amazing. This does not sound like some sterile mix that is taken directly from the soundboard, but you get the full ambience of the large hall as well. Every instrument is crystal clear and perfectly balanced.

Bonus features include a 23-minute interview with Joe shot from the back of his tour bus, as he warms up on his signature guitar through a Marshall Class 5 combo amp. Joe talks about each of the songs performed on the DVD and even plays bits and pieces from many of them. Very cool.

Joe's tour-de-force acoustic number, "Woke Up Dreaming," is included as a bonus feature instead of in the main feature, for whatever reason, but I am just grateful to have it. Joe refers to this glorious ten-minute version as the "psycho, ADD, on Red Bull edition", and it is a real mind-bender. Most guitarists would have to sit down and concentrate, Al Di Meola-style, to play this baby, but Joe casually strolls around the stage having fun with it, as if he could do it in his sleep.

Looks like I probably won't be seeing Joe play those intimate Washington-area clubs like Blues Alley and The Birchmere any more, but if anyone deserves to play bigger venues like the Royal Albert Hall, it is certainly Joe Bonamassa.

Track List

Disc One:
01. The Road To The Royal Albert Hall *
02. Django
03. The Ballad Of John Henry

04. So, It’s Like That
05. Last Kiss
06. So Many Roads
07. Stop!
08. Further On Up The Road (with Eric Clapton)
09. High Water Everywhere
10. Sloe Gin

Disc Two:
01. I First Met B.B. King… *
02. Lonesome Road Blues
03. Happier Times
04. Your Funeral My Trial (with Paul Jones)
05. Blues Deluxe
06. Story Of A Quarryman
07. The Great Flood
08. Just Got Paid
09. Mountain Time
10. Asking Around For You

Bonus Track:
01. Woke Up Dreaming

* short documentary

Performance – 10/10
Production – 10/10

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