I had been in two minds (me1 and me2) about Joe Bonamassa leading up to this gig. On the one hand, me1 can’t help admiring someone whose declared influences are Clapton, Beck, Page, Green, Kossoff, Gallagher, Vaughan, Barre... I mean that kaleidoscope of stars are the very same I listened to. Me2, on the other hand, have heard the critics call him bland, boring, functional and all the words designed to convey technical prowess over feel. Slick but no cigar.
So here we are, up the back up high, but not too high, pretty good spot actually, in a cut-back Spark Arena where I have often found the sound to be easier to be good. And a near-capacity crowd, of a certain age not too far removed from your writers, are totally behind their man.
And right on time, the stellar band file on and we’re off on a non-stop train of ten-minute songs, all immaculately structured and tightly performed. Me2 tells me so, he’s too technical, there’s no feel, but me1 hears enough variation to keep that heresy at bay.
Me2 calls out the chord progressions, the scaley scales, there’s nothing new, it’s all been done before, but me1 reminds us that this is, after all, the blues, and the blues is about interpretations around a key set of chord progressions, and everyone has done it since time immemorial, or at least since W.C Handy heard the old guy on the Tutweiler train station platform a hundred years or so ago.
Me2 reckons he’s a robot and dares Reuben the photographer to shoot him from the back of the arena, to which he is confined, and see if he notices. Well Reuben does shoot him, and he indeed doesn’t notice, but me1 reminds us it’s just a camera.
Me2 notices the guy beside us has gone to sleep, but me1 notices the smile on his face and we realise he’s gone to heaven, just for a bit.
Lots of covers, but once again, the blues is all about covers. There’s a nod to Jethro Tull with the Locomotive Breath intro. Even the set-list tells us so. There’s no need for that, everyone knows Locomotive Breath. Too slick by too far, sighs me2, and then what a waste, as we head off on another train, without the chugga chugga chug chug chug that we know and love and expect. Nice gesture, counters me1, and all is forgiven as the song expands and develops, and This Train passes through a station featuring Jimmy Barnes' daughter Mahalia in a dynamic vocal exchange with Joe.
And this is how it goes... until about 8 or 9 songs before he speaks, and it is him, it’s not Alexa, as he introduces his band. Lemar Carter is on drums, replacing usual drummer Anton Fig. He does a John Bonham thing early in the show to dispel any misgivings. Then Reese Wynans on keys. He’s the guy who played in Stevie’s band Double Trouble, and who can also be seen every Monday night at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, supporting Mike Henderson. Along with legendary bass player Michael Rhodes, the most recorded bass player in history. Who told you that? Well, Mike did, when I saw them at the Bluebird last year. Told you? Well, not just me, the other 39 people who were there as well, so I’m sure he wasn’t kidding. And then there’s Lee Thornburg on trumpet and Paulie Cerra on sax along with a trio of vocalists, the aforementioned Mahalia Barnes, Jade McRae and Juanita Tippens. All stars in their own write. Juanita is singled out by Joe as a kiwi, letting us know that he knows the difference. But Jade McRae is also rock royalty, daughter of legendary Kiwi Jazz couple Dave McRae and Joy Yates.
Not much of a personality, says Me2. “Who needs a personality when you can f**kin' play guitar like that”, says my mate Roy, who a few short hours ago had never heard of Bonamassa.
So it’s now two against one. Me1 and Roy versus Me2. And Reuben, who buggers off because it’s too “samey samey”. Two against two. But, hang on, everyone else who is there is clamouring for more, and what is more if it’s not more of the same?
It’s classic big band blues, with a rock undercurrent that brings Clapton (at his best) and Zeppelin to mind, and the band is flawless, even when letting loose with practised indulgence on the Willie Dixon medley Tea for One/I Can’t Quit You Baby. And Me1 can even detect him going off piste into the soft snow of improvisation during this extended run.
Joe Bonamassa doesn’t need to break new ground, he’s playing exactly what we want to hear, and he’s doing it impeccably well, says Me1 triumphantly. Me2 is grumpy.
C’mon man, who was listening to Bonamassa in the car all day yesterday?
Me2: Both of us
Me1: I rest my case
Me2: but hang on, that’s the issue, it was CD. It wasn’t vinyl...
Oh, shit... But, thanks to Southbound Records for allowing me to set the record straight...ish.
Joe Bonamassa's setlist in Auckland
- Tiger in Your Tank (Muddy Waters)
- Evil Mama
- Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should
- King Bee Shakedown
- If Heartaches Were Nickels (Kenny Neal)
- This Train (Locomotive Breath Intro)
- Blues of Desperation
- Sloe Gin (Tim Curry)
- Well, Well (Delaney & Bonnie)
- Tea for one/I Can’t Quit You (Willie Dixon)
- Little Girl (John Mayall)
- The Ballad of John Henry
- Woke Up Dreaming
- Mountain Time