Last item on bucket list: checked. That’s what modern blues king Joe Bonamassa says now about playing the historic Carnegie Hall in New York City over the course of two nights in January of 2016, the contents of which make up this latest live recording (out Friday, June 23). He has played at other legendary venues in his career, including Red Rocks, Royal Albert Hall in England (where he also played live with his musical hero Eric Clapton), the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and on and on. But now, Bonamassa is proud to have played the same stage as music’s all-time legends (from the Beatles and Stones to the Allman Brothers, and Count Basie, to Pink Floyd, Buddy Rich, etc.).
For this occasion, JB kept some of his elite level 11-piece band that played on his recently Grammy-nominated 2016 release, Live at the Greek Theatre, with some notable newbies. This includes Egyptian percussion player Hossam Ramzy (who two decades ago played live with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their “Unledded” reunion/acoustic performances) and Tina Guo, a classically-trained cello player with heavy metal chops in her background. This nine-piece Bona band recorded 15 total tracks for Live at Carnegie Hall.
Piano virtuoso Reese Wynans kicks things off with piano runs that will be familiar to classic rock fans, that of Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath.” It makes for an unexpected but no less sparkling intro to first full song “This Train,” which in acoustic countrified rock band form loses none of its giddy-up tempo (led by drummer Anton Fig). It’s the first of a trio of tunes off of last year’s five-star LP Blues of Desperation, with the other two being “Drive” and the Americana gem, “The Valley Runs Low,” which sounds even more soulful here with the powerful trio of backup singers (Mahalia Barnes, Jaunita Tippins, and Gary Pinto).
What JB fans should (and probably most do) appreciate about his live acoustic band outings like this and previous acoustic release An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House (2013) is the limitlessness vision he has for them. He had everything from accordions and banjos to a nychelparpa and mandola player (Mats Wester) on Vienna. On Carnegie, his cellist player Guo doubles as an erhu specialist, and that exotic (Chinese) instrument truly stands out with subliminal beauty on “Drive.”
Elsewhere, “Blue and Evil” (originally from 2010 album Black Rock) gets stripped of its Zeppelin-esque zeal to reveal an identity all its own, and Wynans gets to sparkle his keys brightly again on the first track of CD 2, “Mountain Time.” You will, of course, hear JB masterfully play his Gibson acoustics all throughout this set just like he does with his same brand electrics on other releases and tours, “Song of Yesterday” (Black Country Communion) being one of the epic highlights here. But with such world-class talent surrounding him all the time, he should really think about adding a band name to a tour one of these days (“Joe Bonamassa and the B Street Band” might be too cheesy, but you get the idea). Time to digress.
The only other issue he should think about for future acoustic sessions is making sure not to perform too many of the same songs acoustically from one release to the next – five of the 15 songs here were also played on the Vienna release. (‘Tis just a minor quibble.)
Bonamassa has been called the hardest working man in the blues business for a (good) reason. He has over a dozen studio albums and even more live releases to his name now, not to mention several more via a few collaborative projects, most notably with Beth Hart and the hard rock supergroup Black Country Communion. You can’t get away with doing all this if you’re not damn good at it. And in just over a year, he has put out now three tremendous releases (the other two being Live at the Greek Theatre and Blues of Desperation). So add Carnegie Hall to the growing list of essential Bonamassa (live) albums to your collection. If you are new to the Bona craze, welcome to the club (but you’ve got a lot to catch up on)!
Live at Carnegie Hall is still available to pre-order on 3-LP vinyl, Blu-ray, 2-DVD, and 2-CD sets from now until the release day this Friday. Find it at Joe Bonamassa’s official site, Amazon, and retail stores near you.