He’s just done “Sloe Gin” – the one that no one knows is a cover because he nailed the thing in a way no one ever has with a cover – and he’s at one of the most iconic buildings in the world, but Joe Bonamassa has pressing issues on his mind.
“I turn 45 years old on Sunday, London,” he says. “There’s 5000 of you in here, and I get like three cards!? Where is the love?!” (there may have been a couple of more choice words in there, after all JB is a New Yorker….).
45 years old, and essentially, Joe Bonamassa stands apart. In years, decades even, to come, people will talk about him. He may be the best guitar player in the world (in truth, as a non-musician I consider this to be someone else’s business), he is certainly the biggest thing in blues (if of course, he fits that epithet now).
This is the eleventh time he’s played the Royal Albert Hall in the 12 years since he first did, but it’s doubtful that he’s ever looked forward to one as much. Not for nothing does “Welcome Home” play the band onto the stage. There must have been times when Bonamassa thought he might never get to do this again, and my goodness, how excited he and the superb cast he’s assembled look to be here.
He’s released – I think – two studio albums since the last time he played here (a truly incendiary gig in 2019 that ranks as one of the best ten I’ve ever seen) but it’s “Evil Mama”, from a pre pandenmic collection that kicks off here.
The band are stunning, but it is a different band than he’s had before. Josh Smith (“the best guitarist on this stage, trust me” says Bonamassa later on) his friend and collaborator, drummer Greg Morrow and backing singer Prinnie Stephens are all new, but how they’ve fitted in.
It’s a stripped down show too, given that there’s no horn section this time, but the seven onstage breathe fresh life into older material like “Dust Bowl” – and JB cuts loose here for the first time, not the last of the night – while a quite brilliant “Love Ain’t A Love Song” is sprinkled with some Reese Wynans stardust. If we can debate whether Bonamassa is the best, then MV will broker no discussion as to his primacy as a keyboard player. His work with Stevie Ray Vaughan has got him in the Hall Of Fame, and watching him is worth coming to the show for alone.
Whilst Bonamassa work (certainly his solo work these days) is leaving the blues behind, there’s still a nod to the past with Gary Moore’s mournful “Midnight blues”, and with crowd watching almost in respectful awe, Bonamassa is in playful mood, as is underlined by his fun antics in “The Heart That Never Waits”. The only song he plays from the career-high “Time Clocks” record, sees him remove his dark glasses to celebrate the performance, and the backing duo of Stephens and the wonderful Jane McRae dance away in the funky strut of “I Didn’t Think She Would Do It”.
The show is basically split into two. “Just Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should” and the aforementioned “…Gin” almost bookend part one. There’s certainly a gear change on “Conversation With Alice”. Perhaps the most confessional song he’s written, and absolutely one of his best, its Josh Smith though who is given centre stage here – and he makes good on Bonamassa’s claim as to his talent.
“Lonely Boy” is basically a fun , jazzy jam for the whole of the band, but the piano of Wynans sees jaws drop to the floor here, before Bonamassa beckons the crowd to stand to make “Ballad Of John Henry” a communal experience and McRae steals the show with her harmonies.
The encore sees Bonamassa bring his acoustic guitar out for the first time, and he wields it like no one else on “Wake Up Dreaming”, but the song is only the beginning, as it were, as he adds flavours of Flamenco in along with some incredibly skilful finger work.
He explains that he wrote that song in the morning of a writing session, with the one that ends the show in the afternoon. It was some day, as “Mountain Time” builds and reaches its crescendo, while still retaining its southern air. It’s a little less raucous than some endings, but in its own way, just as explosive.
And you wonder whether, when he wrote those as a young man of tender years, Joe Bonamassa had this plan, these ambitions to play this stage, to follow in the footsteps of the greats, the legends even, that had gone before. The truth is, you suspect he probably did, and that also, deep down, he knew he would.
This couple of hours proves, though, there’s none better, none more polished, none more slick and none more skilful. Joe Bonamassa stands – much like the environs he played tonight – without peer. There’s a word I haven’t used in this review and its “gig”. Because this wasn’t. It was a performance, and moreover, one from the best at what he does in the world.