At six P.M., the bar next to the Palace Theatre was six deep, and when I asked the hostess if we could get our names on a list for a table, she said, “You can try.” The joint down the block had an hour-and-a-half wait. By 7:50, both restaurants would be empty: everyone was seeing Joe Bonamassa.
The guitar god wisely divided his performance into acoustic and electric sets, and the impressive array of stringpower awaiting his quintet took my breath away. Bonamassa had what seemed like a baker’s dozen or more guitars; mando/banjo/fiddler Gerry O’Connor hung three violins alone, and among other things, Mats Wester produced a nyckelharpa, a keyed violin instrument I still haven’t figured out.
Particular crowd-pleasers included Robert Johnson’s evergreen “Stones in My Passway,” which Bonamassa infused with hefty doses of country and a bit of rock. On Bonamassa’s “Slow Train,” percussionist Lenny Castro’s gourd shaker and a particularly apt fiddle brought the train steaming across the stage, and Bonamassa’s a capella finish brought the blues back home where it belongs. His own “Athens to Athens” closed out the set with his country flag flying high: fiddle turns, washboard and spoons—this number would find a home in any Americana, folk or Irish festival.
After a short break, a Gibson Les Paul in hand, Bonamassa came back with a power-chord vengeance and a full band, including electric bass, horns and drums in addition to Castro’s percussion. Bonamassa showed his roots on a rendition of Otis Rush’s classic slow blues “Double Trouble”: at age eight, Bonamassa started out opening for B.B. King, and over the years has absorbed something from that master, although he’s more often compared to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. When you’re in that rarified air, it doesn’t pay to nitpick.
The show’s closer, “So, What Would I Do,” (another beauty from Bonamassa’s pen) was strongly reminiscent of Ray Charles’ best—and not just because of the excellent keyboards from SRV’s Double Trouble alumnus Reese Wynans. Charles’ early career fused country with soul and blues, and the Genius likely would be pleased to have written this song. Melodic and heartfelt, this song stands out even in the crowded field of the Bonamassa catalogue—16 albums in about as many years.
His equipment truck reads “Joe Bonamassa, Always On The Road,” and that’s likely true. Bonamassa told Elmore he doesn’t stockpile songs, he writes them and records them; his last album took him off the road for just over two weeks. This is one hardworking SOB, and ticketholders get their money’s worth each and every show.
Apparently Bonamassa’s work ethic comes to him honestly. During the performance, one couple way in the front stood up and refused to sit, despite the ongoing entreaties of people around them. Soon, an imposing gentleman wearing Harley Davidson attire walked some 10 or 20 rows forward, spoke with them briefly but firmly, and they sat. Out on the street after the concert, my companion noticed the man and asked him what he’d said. Turns out the man’s a cop from upstate New York, and Joe Bonamassa’s dad. Like father, like son—always on the job.
– Suzanne Cadgène