Blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa‘s recent Live at the Greek Theatre release documented a high-energy, tightly focused blues show, and until the other night that was the closest I’d come to seeing him live. So he and his band surprised me at the Beacon Theatre with an almost completely different and more rockified two-and-a-quarter-hour set. It featured a number of originals from recent albums, songs that stray far from the blues and don’t appear on Live at the Greek Theatre.
High-voltage rock dominated much of the first half, beginning with an almost heavy-metal intro number. We heard strains of Led Zeppelin, Eastern-influenced prog-rock, and titanic hard-rock riffs with blues licks laid over them. Not until about five numbers in, with a fiery rendition of the minor-key blues “No Good Place for the Lonely,” did this become a true blues show.
Yet it turned out all along to be a good deal more than that too, unfolding into something more interesting and exciting than a simple discussion of genre could suggest.
It’s a truism that rock music developed out of a fusion of blues and country-western. The blues side of the equation is obvious in all great rock, from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin. But Bonamassa is doing something rather new and original: He’s not so much branching out from the blues, but infusing the traditions of rock into his blues. That could only happen now, with more than a half century of rock tradition available to be merged with the older tropes of the blues.
Not since Stevie Ray Vaughan has a true-blue blues guitarist captured a mainstream audience the way Bonamassa has. It’s no coincidence that on stage with him, on keyboards, was Reese Wynans, best known as a member of Vaughan’s band Double Trouble. But Vaughan generally adhered more closely to blues forms, while Bonamassa and company enfolded several traditions into this tightly polished show.
They gave us the shouting soul of “Breakin’ Up Someone’s Home,” with Bonamassa delivering a playful solo on his Flying V guitar; the good-time blues of “Don’t You Lie to Me”; a titanic roar rising from Albert King’s “Angel of Mercy,” complete with a towering solo from drummer Anton Fig; and the wall of sound that brought the encore, Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird,” to a crashing close.
Another highlight was the southern-rock ballad “Driving Towards the Daylight,” with soulful vocals from Bonamassa and lofty support from his three superb backup singers – who each, deservedly, got a verse on “Slow Train.”
Joe Bonamassa is a guitarist of many layers of skill. He can shred, but he can speak a world of emotions with a single note. The audience was with him every moment, despite the Beacon Theatre’s suboptimal rock-concert sound. Wynans’s keyboards and Michael Rhodes’s bass sounded muddy, and strangely, most of Bonamassa’s impressive variety of guitars (he played five or six) sounded tonally similar.
But all that hardly mattered. This guitar-god-for-grownups laughs at petty adversities, and we laugh with him in the joy of the music.