Joe Bonamassa and his band, here dubbed the Three Kings Blues Band, fire on all cylinders throughout the two-plus hours of Live at the Greek Theatre, available as a 2-CD or 2-DVD set. Recorded, amazingly, at a single sold-out Los Angeles concert in 2015, the selections pay tribute to the three “Kings” of the blues: Freddie King, Albert King, and of course Bonamassa’s mentor B.B. King.
From the yearning cry of “You’ve Got to Love Her with a Feeling” to the propulsive pedal-to-the-metal of “Going Down” and all gears in between, the first half of Disc 1 is devoted to songs recorded first by Freddie King. Bonamassa’s inspired mastery of the blistering Chicago blues guitar style is on glorious display.
The smoky grooves of Albert King take over for the second half of the disc, with Bonamassa evoking the Stax legend’s smooth, deceptively minimalist-sounding solos. The three backup singers help make everything as cool as it is hot, the horns riff their hearts out, and Reese Wynans switches from piano to stuttering organ. Bonamassa even captures Albert King’s dark vocal phrasing on songs like “I Get Evil.”
The low-down funky groove of “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” with its angry lyrics sounds timeless, even with Wynans on ’70s-style electric piano. The song starts and culminates with rumbling one-chord jams that bring the blues back to its roots in yearning for freedom.
Albert King never, that I know of, employed the broad, distorted rock crunch Bonamassa applies to “Angel of Mercy,” another song with bitter lyrics. But the blues is as adaptable as it is ageless, and a good song with a salty groove sounds good however overclocked. Closing Disc 1, the horns and the ultra-tight battery of drummer Anton Fig and bassist Michael Rhodes ground the tasty funk of “Cadillac Assembly Line.”
Bonamassa shows off his guitar-rock chops on Albert King’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” to open Disc 2, after which the band slides into B.B. King territory, starting the party with a crackling “Let the Good Times Roll” with guest vocals from fabulous backup singer Mahalia Barnes. Amazingly, Bonamassa manages to evoke B.B. King’s guitar-solo style while picking and hammering four times as many notes as B.B. ever would have.
The bouncy gospel of “Old Time Religion” breaks up the blues onslaught, and the band brings it down for a quiet intro to “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother,” showing a warm, delicate touch.
The barrelhouse blues of “Boogie Woogie Woman” leads into Leon Russell’s deeply soulful “Hummingbird,” which makes a weird choice for a shredding showcase. The 11-minute epic version here falls short of the anthemic quality it tries for. But the live set closes with loving, dirt-deep takes on three classics: the beloved Freddie King instrumental “Hide Away” (known to so many from the 1966 Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album that helped introduce a generation of white Brits and Americans to the blues); Albert King’s biggest hit, “Born Under a Bad Sign” (co-written by the newly prominent William Bell); and B.B. King’s signature tune “The Thrill Is Gone.” You can’t get better than that. “Keeping the Blues Alive” couldn’t be a more appropriate name for the production team behind this fantastic concert.
As a bonus, Disc 2 offers a new studio recording of Bonamassa and the band playing John Hiatt’s “Riding with the King” (here revised to “Kings”). Hiatt wrote the silky soul tune about Elvis Presley, but since Eric Clapton and B.B. King revived it on their collaborative album by that name in honor of the blues great in 2000, it’s become something of a blues signifier. The track also introduces the first disc of the two-DVD version of Live at the Greek Theatre, and there’s an official music video on DVD 2. (Cross-pollination side note: Bonamassa lent his guitar wizardry to a track on Hiatt’s recent Here to Stay album.)
The feature video starts with a documentary snippet of Bonamassa as a 13-year-old blues guitar wunderkind, then launches into the concert and conveys the energy of the live band very viscerally. The sound quality is quite good. (DTS Surround Sound is offered.)
DVD 2 includes a bit of behind-the-scenes pre-concert footage and a substantial and enlightening interview with Bonamassa’s parents about the upstate New York family’s musical background, how early Joe got his start on guitar, how devoted he was to his music all through his childhood and youth, how he got his start as a pro at the age of 12, etc.
Joe’s father reflects interestingly on the legacy of the blues, too. “He’s on a mission, no doubt about it…[and] probably the hardest-working person in the industry.” (The elder Bonamassa was in the vintage guitar business, so it may be no accident that Joe plays no fewer than 10 different guitars during the Greek Theatre concert.) The Bonamassas also take us to the Utica venues where Joe at 10 and 11 made his first public appearances. “From here to Radio City,” says his mother. “It’s been amazing.”
The interview is interesting, but if I were to choose one or the other, I’d go for the CD version, only because that format is more convenient for repeat listens. Fans of Bonamassa or of the blues in general (especially all-out big-band blues) should be happy with the sound quality of either, and the concert itself is a blowout whether you’re watching or just listening. “Keeping the Blues Alive”? No one’s doing more for the cause than Joe Bonamassa.