Review by Pete Finn for MPM
Today, MPM Tog Manny and myself are off to visit Royalty, actually I’ll go further and say we’re off to visit and see a Guitar Legend and Royalty. Because, tonight performing at The Royal Albert Hall is Joe Bonamassa.
Our drive down the A1 included the obligatory missed junction which resulted in a scenic tour of Barnet, before we arrived at Cockfosters Station. Once parked up, Manny wants to take a picture of me in front of the station sign, he’s very fussy about getting me to stand in the right place for some reason. We have a 45-minute tube ride to Gloucester Road and then a 10-minute walk to the Hall.
The Royal Albert Hall is one of Great Britain’s most recognizable and treasured buildings, it sits with its toes touching the south west corner of Hyde Park, and was opened by Queen Victoria in 1871.
The Hall has a capacity of 5,272 and has hosted many notable events including Royal Gala’s, The Last Night of The Proms, Film Premiere’s and concerts covering all genres of music. This is ‘The’ venue to play.
We’re met in the foyer by Peter Noble who has kindly arranged our tickets, passes and show information. We make our way inside. The hall is looking magnificent as I glance around, looking up at the rows of boxes I feel that these two old Muppets are home.
Exactly 13 years and one day ago, on 4th May 2009 Joe Bonamassa played this iconic venue for the first time. On the night of that first show, he said something along the lines of “This show will either be the last show of my career, or the first show of the rest of my career”, luckily for us here tonight it proved to be the latter. During that debut show he was joined on stage by his hero, Eric Clapton, who himself has performed over 200 times on the Royal Albert Hall stage.
Born in New Hartford, New York on 8th May 1977, he started playing guitar at the age of four. By the time he’d reached twelve years old he was opening for B.B. King. He’s gone on to record 15 studio albums, with the most recent being ‘Time Clocks’ which was released during October 2021. A little bit of trivia, the artwork for the album was done by Hugh Syme who has previously designed album covers for Rush, Aerosmith, and Whitesnake. His long-time record producer is Kevin Shirley, who also works with Iron Maiden. During his ‘free’ time Joe Bonamassa is part of the hard rock supergroup Black Country Communion.
But tonight, is all about Joe Bonamassa, appearing on stage with him are Steve Mackey (bass), Reese Wynans (keyboards), Josh Smith (guitar), Greg Morrow (drums and percussion), along with Jade MacRae and Dani De Andrea on backing vocals.
The buzz of excitement and expectation builds as the Hall fills up. The lights go out, ‘Welcome Back’ is played through the PA and from stage right, Joe Bonamassa appears on stage to a great reception; he smiles and acknowledges his audience.
Tonight’s show opens with ‘Evil Mama’, the opening track on the 2018 release ‘Redemption’. A funky sound gets the crowd going straight away, Bonamassa center stage in a smart suit, knock-out brown patent shoes and sunglasses, his lyrics clear and upbeat.
MacRae and De Andrea in glittering tops, their vocals making the sound rich as it fills the hall, the driving bass gives the track atmosphere. Bonamassa takes a few steps to the side and leans back for his guitar solo, this has a solid classic rock sound, it combines with the funk back drop brilliantly. A great way to start.
Without pausing, the moody Western intro of ‘Dust Bowl’ starts, it’s the title track from the 2011 album. The spotlight from the top of the hall is illuminating Bonamassa, It’s slower and brooding, this song has a lot going on, a real cocktail of different sounds and tempos.
The hat wearing Josh Smith and Reese Wynans are adding real texture to the composition. Bonamassa is speaking the lyrics, this is a well-conceived track, it’s very clever.
We move forward a few years to 2014 and ‘Love Ain’t a Love Song’ from the ‘Different Shades of Blue’ album. Again, a funky sound with the tempo quicker, Bonamassa’s vocal is steady and clear, these words are important.
Reese Wynans treats us to a keyboard solo, Bonamassa cups his ears and points to Wynans, the audience show their appreciation. Morrow and Mackey provide the heavy heart-beat to the track. Bonamassa makes his way to the front of the stage for the solo, his fingers are floating over the fret board, my eyes are struggling to tell my brain what I’m watching his fingers are that fast, Joe is on fire.
Josh Smith steps to the front for a solo. As I stare on, I feel as Bonamassa is almost dancing with his guitar, he shows it the respect and care, as a ballroom dancer does for their partner, one cannot perform without the other. As he sways and twists, his guitar follows as if joined at the hip. A perfect ‘10’ for the perfect partnership.
Next, we have a Gary Moore cover, it’s ‘Midnight Blues’ taken from his 1990 album ‘Still Got The Blues’. Joe walks around the stage, playing with minimal accompaniment, just a gentle drum beat and an easy bass strum, setting the scene, this is delicate, the hall is silent, just listening.
He eases his way in front of the mic, careful lyrics. Bonamassa picks up the tempo as the band come in. Bonamassa arches his back as the notes leap out. Bonamassa and the band have played this with respect and consideration to the original. Gary Moore would have loved it.
Bonamassa speaks to the audience, “Thank you kindly, you fine folk”. Up next, we have ‘The Heart That Never Waits’ from the recent 2021 ‘Time Clocks’. A dirty sleazy sound, a classic Blues Bar sound, Reese Wynans has his Hammond purring.
Bonamassa is telling a story and everyone is listening. The solo is in two distinct parts, the first a high tempo classic rock sound before switching effortlessly to a traditional blues sound with perfect definition of the notes. Bonamassa pauses, he removes his glasses and shrugs, the audience clap and cheer before he continues. Joe cleverly builds the tempo back up as the backing singers join in to the finish. It was sublime.
The pace is increased for ‘I Didn’t Think She Would Do It’ from the 2020 release ‘Royal Tea’. The heavier intro starts the track off. It’s a rich velvety sound, the audience are animated as they nod and tap along. Morrow is one of the calmest drummers I’ve seen, up there with the late, great Charlie Watts.
MacRae and De Andrea are dancing away and tambourine shaking, if it wasn’t for the confines of our seats most people would be up joining them. As the track comes to the end, the band turn and watch as Reese Wynans is tickling the keys, and their giggles are fabulous and infectious.
We’re back with the blues sound for ‘Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should’ and return to 2018’s ‘Redemption’. It’s a slower tempo, but it has swagger, there are moments when the vocals are alternating with the guitar. MacRae and Di Andrea are bringing the chorus to life with added harmonies.
Bonamassa hands over to Wynans who’s notes are now filling the auditorium, the sound is amazing as it reverberates around this great place, Bonamassa takes back the reigns for his solo, walking to the edge of the stage before crouching down as he plays. I look around at those seated near me, a few have their eyes closed, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying being in their ‘Happy Place’.
The instrumental ‘Django’ from the 2006 album ‘You & Me’ is next, Bonamassa is at the front of the stage, the band quiet in their support, a restrained beat from Mackey and Morrow, Reese Wynans is encouraging Bonamassa’s guitar for more.
Without pausing we slide in to ‘Pain and Sorrow’ from ‘So It’s Like That’ released in 2002. This has a heavier, almost Jimi Hendrix feel, the bass of Mackey is bouncing the air around the hall, Joe’s solo is a ‘no holds barred’ rock out, his hands and fingers are a blur, the sound in phenomenal.
He points to Wynans and the two of them start the outro, and the rest of the band pick up the tempo to the close. I’m out my seat applauding with everyone else. Bonamassa walks to the front of the stage and soaks up the atmosphere, he mouths a “Thank You” to the audience.
Joe tells the audience it’s great to be back at The Royal Albert Hall, especially for two nights. He carries on to say he’s emptied the gift shop of pens and mugs, then proceeds to tells us an amusing story about a ‘dress code incident’ involving his footwear, he had the previous night at a Knightsbridge Restaurant. He asks us to show our appreciation for the band as he introduces them.
Up next, we have ‘A Conversation With Alice’ from 2020’s ‘Royal Tea’ album, Josh Smith features with some classic slide guitar, it’s upbeat and happy. MacRae and Di Andrea are dancing whilst they join in with the chorus. Josh Smith gets to exercise his fingers with a solo, before Wynans has the Hammond purring again.
Joe Bonamassa treats us to yet another rocking solo, before Smith is back to slide guitar duties for the outro. A wonderfully composed song, built with elements that showcase great musical talents.
We stay with ‘Royal Tea’ for ‘Lonely Boy’, the Rock ‘n’ Roll inspired track, Josh Smith plays a great foot stomping solo, part Rock ‘n’ Roll, part Country/Swamp Rock, his hat bobbing along, he hands over to Wynans, who’s now out of his chair, the Roland keyboard is sounding like a Saloon piano, if you close your eyes, you’d swear there was more than one person playing, listening to the amount and pace of the notes coming our way, you can see why he was inducted in to ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’ in 2016.
It must be hot on stage, Bonamassa walks over to someone sat on the front row, stage right and hands them his guitar which was either a Natural/Blonde 1951 Nocaster or a 1952 Telecaster (I had to look at some pictures, so maybe I’m wrong), whilst he took off his jacket. Joe is crouched over tapping his foot as his solo fills the hall. Bonamassa is back on the vocals giving a hint of a yodel. That track was great fun. Joe Calls for everyone to stand up.
The iconic ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ the title and opening track from the 2009 album about the American Folk Hero, is the final track of the set. Heavy blues riffs, a deep chugging sound. Bonamassa’s clear lyric cutting through the haze, the backing vocals are adding a rich texture, this is anthemic.
We slow in the middle as Jade MacRae opens her lungs and serenades us. Joe points to her and the crowd show their appreciation. Bonamassa slows things down with his solo, creating haunting sounds with the Theremin next to him as he waves his hands and guitar around it. He ramps things up again with the chugging riff as his lyrics get quicker.
A big crescendo rock finish as Joe thanks the audience, who are still out of their chairs cheering and clapping. Bonamassa holds his guitar above his head, removes his sunglasses and leaves the stage with the band smiling and waving.
Joe is back out on the stage to another rapturous reception, he’s alone and this time with an acoustic guitar, the quick strumming starts ‘Woke Up Dreaming’ from the 2003 ‘Blues Deluxe’ album. The sound is wonderful. In parts he’s sounding and dancing like a Spanish Flamenco dancer, stamping his feet. The audience are hypnotized, breathing in every note as if it was their last, savoring the moment. He stops and removes his sunglasses and enjoys the applause before continuing. He caresses the strings the sound is silky smooth.
The band rejoin him on stage for tonight’s final track ‘Sloe Gin’ the 1978 Tim Curry cover from Bonamassa’s 2007 album of the same name. A slow blues track, it has a nice undercurrent of bass beats from Mackey, with De Andrea and MacRae adding smoothness to the overall mood.
Bonamassa is leaning back for his solo, pointing his guitar skywards, the notes filling the great dome above us, which like the pillars below is bathed in red light. As the song comes to the end, Bonamassa holds four fingers aloft, we close with four big beats. The audience clap and cheer as Bonamassa flicks plectrums towards the front rows and hands out a setlist to a lucky few before leaving the stage after the band.
Joe Bonamassa and his band have been magnificent tonight. They’ve played for over 2-hours. The abilities and talents of musicianship have been out of this world, the rhythms and beats of Mackey and Morrow, the fabulous guitar support from Josh Smith, the amazing playing of Wynans and the backing vocals of MacRae and De Andrea have all contributed to the atmosphere.
You don’t attend or watch a Joe Bonamassa concert, you feel it, you experience it, and in a setting such as The Royal Albert Hall, it’s the perfect combination. This is how memories are created. You can sense the mutual respect of Joe Bonamassa has for the venue, and this marvelous venue has for Joe Bonamassa.
Setlist: Evil Mama, Dust Bowl, Love Ain’t a Love Song, Midnight Blues, The Heart That Never Waits, I Didn’t Think She Would Do It, Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should, Django/Pain and Sorrow, A Conversation With Alice, Lonely Boy, The Ballad of John Henry, Woke Up Dreaming, Sloe Gin.
Photography by Manny Manson for MPM