Better than: Playing guitar in your bedroom
Former child prodigy Joe Bonamassa has managed to shed the shackles of his early successes and blossom into the guitar torch-bearer of a generation. Bonamassa's performance at Hard Rock Live last night lured droves of fans out to see the premier sultan of pentatonic riffery blaze through a set of trumped-up blues-rock, and to see what's become of the mannish boy from upstate New York.
Bonamassa's set started out with some lush sounding acoustic numbers, including a cover of Free's "Seagull" and some other songs in the stripped format. While Bonamassa's skills as a guitarist were never in question, to watch the him perform without his wall of vintage amplifiers and the endless well of sustain they provide was almost a more satisfying experience than the bombast of the full band. The honesty of acoustic performance -- which was a veritable lesson in flat-picking technique -- is something many guitarists in this realm fear, but for Bonamassa, it was the perfect way to greet the crowd and ease into the night.
The other benefit of starting things off with a set of fiery acoustic flat-picking is that the impact of electric set opener, "Slow Train," was even stronger in relativity. Bonamassa, armed with a vintage Gibson Firebird 1, absolutely smoldered through the slow blues of the song, bringing the crowd to a stir with the first big solo moment of the night.
Bonamassa is an extremely reverent student of the blues, but as a member of the new guard, he has readily admitted an affinity for the British re-imports of the stuff provided by the likes of Clapton, Beck, and Page. Last night, those influences were nodded at frequently, in addition to those that influenced them. Bonamassa's cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talking" (which he recorded for the Driving Towards Daylight album) proved an ideal way to do both as the classic song also provided the riff Jimmy Page appropriated for "Whole Lotta Love," and gave the audience the first show stopping solo outing of the night. Wielding the '59 Les Paul known to guitar forum dorks worldwide as "Spot," Bonamassa and co. reveled in an ultra-dynamic instrumental break, the guitarist teasing the audience with volume swells and gently adjusted note bends, until giving way to one of his string-skipping salvos of blues-shred.
Again, paying homage to those that came before, Bonamassa followed up "Who's Been Talking" with "Midnight Blues," a track made popular by the late Gary Moore. Moore was a member of Thin Lizzy and an Irish guitar icon that went back this blues roots in the late '80s. His album Still Got the Blues essentially set the format for Bonamassa. The performance of that track exemplified the influence even more so. The song also showed how much stronger Bonamassa's singing has become in recent years.
The guitarist's voice has been criticized for as long as he's been in the role of frontman, however, he has graduated into that role nicely, and last night showed just how much better he has gotten as a singer. No longer were the vocals just punctuation between solo bouts: He sang the blues in a convincing manner -- a trait very few young men of a suburban background pull off.
Other highlights of the night included the restrained and authentic blues vibe of "Wild About You Baby," and a cover of "Young Man's Blues" by the Who. The set officially ended with "Mountain Time," an original that had Bonamassa channeling Jeff Beck's incredibly vocal guitar stylings. After the band returned for the encore, he let loose more tribute to Beck, starting the medley romp of classic riffs with the intro to "Ain't Superstitious" before meandering through some signature Jimmy Page and Billy Gibbons vibes. The night ended with the packed auditorium on their feet and a gracious Bonamassa reaffirming the well-being of blues-based guitar heroism.
Personal Bias: Major guitar dork, raised in upstate NY.
The Crowd: Families, middle-aged, lots of printed guitar bowling shirts.
Setlist (by guitar)
-"Palm Trees Helicopters and Gasoline"
-"Driving Towards Daylight"
-"Woke Up Dreaming"
-"Slow Train" - Vintage Gibson Firebird 1
-"Dust Bowl" - Vintage 1959 Les Paul Standard with Bigsby ("Batman")
-"Who's Been Talking" - Vintage 1959 Les Paul Standard ("Spot")
-"Midnight Blues" - "Spot"
-"Ballad of John Henry" - "Spot"
-"Wee Wee Hours" - "Spot"
-"Wild About You Baby" - Vintage Gibson ES-350 w/humbuckers
-"Look Over Yonders Wall" - ES-350
-"Blues Deluxe" - Vintage 1958 Les Paul Standard (Guitar Broker Burst)
-"Young Man's Blues" - "Broker Burst"
-"Mountain Time" - ALM
"Sloe Gin" - Vintage 1959 Les Paul (The "Skinner" Burst)
"Just Got Paid/Riff Medley" - "Skinner"