At this point in what now, officially, a lengthy and acclaimed career, blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa has more in common with his classic rock heroes of the 1970s than, perhaps, the legendary 1950s and '60s-era bluesmen that informed and influenced the generations to follow. Bonamassa doesn't wait for any grass to grow beneath his feet, and over the course of the last four years, the guitarist has released an impressive and prolific five studio albums and a pair of live discs, Beacon Theatre – Live In New York being the second.
Recorded live in November 2011at the historic Beacon Theatre in New York City – a blues-friendly venue that has served as the Allman Brothers Band's home away from home for years – Bonamassa's performance was captured on HD video and originally released on DVD and Blu-ray back in March 2012. The audio portion of this great performance is a two-CD set offering up what one presumes was the entire night's show, twenty scorching performances that cement Bonamassa's musical legacy while proving that two live sets in a little more than three years is still not enough to sate the true fan's thirst.
Joe Bonamassa's Beacon Theatre – Live From New York
The show opens with the nimble, country-blues styled "72nd St. Subway Blues," a nifty lil' intro of acoustic fretwork that, while, woefully brief for my taste, nevertheless cleverly captures the Piedmont spirit of Blind Blake or Brownie McGhee. The band almost immediately blows into the gale-force "Slow Train," a Bonamassa original written in the Jimi Hendrix tradition, the song an explosive blend of heavy riffs and bludgeoning rhythms. Bonamassa's solos here hit your ears like a reckless sledge as the machine-like rhythms grind and gnaw in the background.
Bonamassa acquits himself nicely on a cover of Rory Gallagher's "Cradle Rock." Lacking the Irish blues-rock guitar legend's gruff vocal style, Bonamassa delivers a more soulful croon, emphasizing the song's blustery instrumentation with his blistering fretboard runs and the rhythm section's smothering, steamroller sound that effectively paves the way for Bonamassa's amazing guitarwork. Another cover, another Irish musical legend paid tribute with Gary Moore's "Midnight Blues" receiving a reverent, rocking arrangement with Bonamassa's haunting intro showcasing Moore's wonderful and often-underrated melodic sense, the song itself an atmospheric blues tune that displays a fine nuance and subtle charms. It's one of Bonamassa's best performances on Beacon Theatre, a stunning tour-de-force that allows him to both pay his respects to Moore while building on his work with a heartfelt, emotional, and powerful performance.
The original "Dust Bowl," from Bonamassa's best-selling album of the same, is an unabashedly bluesy rocker, the guitarist manipulating the listening experience with cleverly-textured shades of light and dark, soft and hard, his masterful arrangement pulling together disparate sonics and emotions to create a heady brew peppered with his well-timed guitar licks and incendiary solos. It's one of his best moments as a songwriter, if not the best, Bonamassa creating an intricate musical beast that has a strong blues foundation, but rocks like a hurricane and hides a jazzy, complex instrumental mastery under the hood.
The guitarist slides just as effortlessly into classic rhythm and blues; joined by singer Beth Hart on stage, the pair reprise their version of Etta James' classic "Sinner's Prayer" from their Don't Explain album. Hart's powerful vocals rise above the lava-like instrumental sludge that boils and bubbles beneath Bonamassa's soaring guitar licks, the entire crew bringing a more menacing element of sin and salvation to the performance. Bonamassa takes Little Walter's classic "You Better Watch Yourself" to new musical heights, ramping up the song's original rollicking Chicago blues vibe with louder guitars, louder drums, and roaring guitar solos that replace Walter's original harmonica riffs. Rick Melick's rocking keyboard runs help bolster the song's instrumentation, emerging from the mix and complimenting the raucous guitarplay.
Bird On A Wire
A cover of folk-rock songwriting legend Leonard Cohen's lovely "Bird On A Wire" may seem a bit incongruous on a live blues-rock set, but Joe Cocker sang it during his Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, so why not Joe Bonamassa? Challenging himself somewhat vocally, young Joe does himself proud, his vocals bringing just the right amount of bittersweet emotion to the table as Melick's quiet keyboards chime in the background. The performance shows Bonamassa to be more than just another guitarslinger, but a fine musical stylist as well (back in the Delta days they'd call him a "songster," and it fits). His fretwork here cannot be underestimated, though, displaying a shimmering, cautious elegance that enhances Cohen's wonderful lyrics.
Acclaimed Americana singer and songwriter John Hiatt joins Bonamassa and crew on stage for a pair of songs, beginning with Hiatt's "Down Around My Place." Hiatt's rough-hewn vocals are a thing of true beauty, expressive and emotional like an antique bluesman yet twangy and earthy like an old country singer. Hiatt's literate storytelling is powerfully expressed by the swelling crescendo that Bonamassa's guitar adds to the arrangement, his high-flying fretwork joined by layers of instrumentation, with drummer Tal Bergman's measured beats standing out. Hiatt and Bonamassa play together like old souls, the pairing something special for fans of either artist.
Fire & Water
Bonamassa's original "Blue And Evil" is another Hendrix-influenced stomp-and-stammer blues-rock dirge that raises the roof with muscular fretwork and a heavier-than-uranium rhythmic framework that sounds like Led Zeppelin, even down to the exotic Bonham-styled percussion and Jimmy Page six-string flourishes. Paul Rodgers, the last of Bonamassa's special guests, joins the guitarist for a pair from the Free catalog, "Walk In My Shadows" being one of the lesser-known tunes from the British blues-rockers' songbook, but a goodie nonetheless. Rodgers' voice sounds nearly as soulfully leonine as it did 40 years back as Bonamassa channels his inner Paul Kossoff on a taut solo that is echoed by the talented Carmine Rojas's melodic bass lines.
Rodger and Bonamassa rip into the Free classic "Fire and Water" like it's 1970 all over again, the band faithfully recreating the heavy British blues-rock vibe of the original while Bonamassa embroiders Rodgers' soaring vox with steely riffing and wiry notes. Bonamassa delivers a solid performance of Mose Allison's oft-visited "Young Man Blues," the guitarist building on the stunning performance by the Who's Pete Townshend from that band's Live At Leeds album, wearing his love of classic rock on his sleeve, perhaps, but knocking it out of the park with a dynamic performance drenched in pathos and crackling with energy. The Beacon Theatre – Live In New York CD set includes a "bonus track" in the form of a cover of Warren Haynes' "If Heartaches Were Nickels," a bluesy faithful re-creation of the song with plenty of melancholy ambiance and tearjerking guitarplay.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
There are just so damn many fine performances on Beacon Theatre – Live In New York, that one doesn't know where to begin raving. Twenty-years into a career that shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, Bonamassa continues to challenge himself both as a vocalist and an instrumentalist, choosing eclectic cover songs to accompany his originals and performing with diverse talents like Hart, Hiatt, and Rodgers. The only minor cavil I have with the set is the guitarist's reliance on other writer's material, represented by 13 of the 20 songs here. Perhaps Bonamassa is a slow songwriter, but he's not without some solid chops, as proven by fiery originals like "Dust Bowl" or "Blue And Evil."
A word must be said about the fan-friendly focus that Bonamassa and his hard-working team put into these recordings. While major record labels are cutting back on graphics and packaging and cheapening the overall experience, the J&R Adventures gang is upping their game, delivering deluxe packages that a fan can't help but love. From the gorgeous original album cover art to a cool 16-page booklet chock full of photos and credits, this is the real deal, the gift wrapping concealing a wealth of great music inside. It's enough to make a blues-rock guitar fanatic squeal with delight... (J&R Adventures, released September 25, 2012)