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Joe Bonamassa: more than just the blues

Live Review

Venue: Hammersmith Apollo, London

Guitarist begins four night stint at the "Hammersmith Fucking Odeon”

Joe Bonamassa, eh? Isn't he that blues bloke, who plays lots of guitar solos? Well, while this is true to an extent, it says as much about Bonamassa as describing Lewis Hamilton as some driver who's good at steering. Because this man (the former, not the latter!) now offers so much more than blues interpretations. He's developed into an all around performer, with a classy style predicated as much on soul and groove as it is on good ole fashioned blues.

The stage setting is understated yet stylish. Which suits the occasion, the vibe and the musical approach. Opening with Hendrix'a Hey Baby (New Rising Sun), the band are quickly into their high stepping stride. Standing centre stage, the main man might not cut a charismatic figure, but holds the attention. His fluid playing is augmented throughout by some stunning keyboard work from Reese Wynans, a former member of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, who's now found another spiritual home. Their combination is almost telepathic at times, and moves the mood from heavy attack to more elusive, quiet passages.

Of course, there are solos throughout, but these are kept within the confines of the songs and never allowed to meander aimlessly. And it's not just Bonamassa who gets to show off his chops. Drummer Tal Bergman and percussionist Daniel Sadownick combine for a fluent interpretation of their art during a cover of Freddie King's I Look Over Yonders Wall, and this song is perhaps the highlight of the night. It opens up into a quite mesmeric tour de force, with the virtuosity of the entire band given a chance to shine, and bassist Carmine Rojas enjoins a firm rhythm with pulsing beats which are entrancing.

While nobody has ever doubted Bonamassa's guitar mastery, he also shows his vocal skills have gone up a notch. In the past, his singing has been adequate, but never captivating, but now he's a lot more confident in front of the microphone. Perhaps working with Beth Hart has made a difference? Although she's still in a league of her, as is obvious when brought out to guest on a show stopping version of I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know. It's instructive that the guitarist cedes the centre stage to her for this song, and Hart is immediately at ease out front. 

But while Hart is a natural communicator, Bonamassa keeps audience banter to a minimum. The only time he really gets worked up is when insisting that whatever the corporations might claim, tonight's venue will always be, for him, “Hammersmith Fucking Odeon”. This statement actually gets the biggest cheer of the two hour-plus set. But then Bonamassa has never been a maverick or rabble rouser. While so many great guitarists channel their angst, agonies and addictions into their playing to achieve emotional momentum, he seems at ease with himself, but still overcomes the dictats of technique through an abiding love for the music he plays.

You can hear his passion during the slightly funky Love Ain't A Love Song and in the evocative rendering of Tim Curry's Sloe Gin, while the gnarled blaze through Trouble Town and Otis Rush's Double Trouble are a fiery acclamation of the way he connects the nostalgia of the blues to the demands of the modern audience.

Reminiscent at turns of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and, most assuredly, B.B. King, Joe Bonamassa has at last found the best way to channel his creativity through the need to be an entertainer as his reputation continues to grow. And it's done without any compromise.

This is a show worth seeing, especially if you still labour under the misconception that Joe Bonamassa is merely that blues bloke who plays interminably long solos.

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