Halfway through guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s blistering show at the Orpheum on Saturday night (the second of two concerts here), it occurred to me that I wasn’t just watching a guitar virtuoso demonstrate complete mastery over his instrument. Rather, I was watching a true artist working hard to etch his name in history alongside other legends of the blues: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, Roy Buchanan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan . . . and now, Joe Bonamassa.
Bonamassa wants to be thought of as one of the greats, and, at 37, he is currently touring the country with an expanded eight-man band and a new album, making a convincing case that he belongs among the giants. In fact, the concert itself was/is a compelling musical essay on the subject of blues-rock, offering a Ph.D-level musicological exploration of the form, with Bonamassa serving as both professor and prodigy.
The promo blurb on the Hennepin Theatre Trust website promised a split show—one acoustic set, followed by electric—but that copy was probably lifted from Bonamassa’s last tour. On Saturday, Bonamassa came out blazing on electric guitar, and there was no sign of wood the entire night. On Friday, he invited local luminary Brian Setzer to sit in for a while, which would have been fun to see. But on Saturday, it was all Joe.
Bonamassa always looks classy onstage, dressed in a suit and wearing his trademark wraparound sunglasses. But for this tour he has upgraded his stage show to include a classic jazz-noir setup for his horn section and a classy, sophisticated light show: just right for the mood of each song, and thankfully spare on the epileptic excess.
As he did Saturday, Bonamassa has been opening his shows with a short, respectful homage to Jimi Hendrix (“Hey Baby”), and ending with Muddy Waters’ “All Aboard” as an encore—which provides two apt historical bookends, stretching backward in time to honor two legends of the genre.
In between, Bonamassa delivered plenty of wailing solos and enough technical pyrotechnics to send a shuttle to the moon. More interesting, however, was the way the show was structured. There were quite a few songs off his latest album, Different Shades of Blue—“Oh Beautiful,” “Never Give All Your Heart,” “Living on the Moon,” “Trouble Town”—all of them well-crafted gems that draw from the blues but stretch the form in all kinds of original ways, particularly when Bonamassa launches into one of his time- and space-bending solos.
Interspersed among Bonomassa’s originals were covers of a variety of different blues artists—Howlin’ Wolf ("Hidden Charms"), Otis Rush ("Double Trouble"), as well as tunes by Freddie and Albert King—all of which Bonamassa bent to his will. In each case, Bonamassa’s respect for the original artist is obvious, but the direction he ends up taking the songs is not. His solos can be mini-TED talks on the blues all their own, quoting a classic Albert King lick, for instance, then lacing it with a taste of Clapton and adding some mixolydian magic to his vocabulary until it ends up being entirely his own thing, utterly original yet steeped in the tradition from which it came. Sometimes, in the middle of a solo, he’ll grab something from the ethers and throw it in for fun. On Saturday, in the middle of one jam, he quoted the chorus from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for a few bars, then dissolved it and went on to something else.
Granted, a Joe Bonamassa concert is guitar-geek heaven. And, depending on how wonky you want to get about it, the layers of instruction Bonamassa provides go extraordinarily deep. When he picks up a Stratocaster, for instance, he will quote some classic licks, letting the instrument’s distinctive crystalline tone fill the room, then proceed to demonstrate what happens when he “Bonamassifies” it, as his fans say, opening up a few new universes of sonic exploration.
Likewise, when he plays his favorite guitar, a Gibson Les Paul, he knows exactly how to use the grit on the edge of its tone to tear a hole in the ceiling. He also knows how to play it so quietly that you can barely hear it. At one point Saturday night, he shushed the crowd to see how low he could go without losing the sound altogether, then brought it back up to a thunderous, roof-rattling crunch, which ended in a piercing single-note wail that suspended everything and everyone in the Orpheum on the tip of his electrified finger. Bonamassa played eight different guitars by my count on Saturday night, and he did something different with each one.
Bonamassa is a favorite of guitar purists because he doesn’t go off in wild musical directions like a Joe Satriani or Steve Vai, and he cares more about phrasing and feeling than he does about dazzling people with how fast he can play—though he can blaze with the best of them. Also, unlike most great guitarists, Bonamassa’s voice is an equally potent instrument, an emphatic baritone that’s as smooth and smoky as a shot of Jameson sometimes, and a growling, spitting world of hurt at others. Deep in the heart of a song like the suicidal ballad “Sloe Gin,”—I’m so damn lonely/and I feel like I’m gonna die—Bonamassa taps into the deepest, darkest roots of the blues, the actual physical and psychic pain from which many of these songs came.
That particular tune happens to have been written by Tim Curry in 1978, but compare the versions and see which one you prefer. Bonamassa uses it to pull together virtually everything that went before it, and much that has gone after, transforming it into what has become one of his signature songs. He followed that highlight Saturday with his rock 'n' roll version of the folk standard, “The Ballad of John Henry,” again making the case that, as an artist, he has studied and assimilated everything that has come before him, has accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of the guitar—and, if you’re paying attention, class, he is now carrying the torch of greatness into the future.
With any luck, Bonamassa won’t be one of those unfortunate legends who has a tragic flame-out, he’ll be one of those bluesmen who goes on for decades. If so, there are going to be a lot of great concerts over the next 30 or 40 years. And the scary thing is, at 37, Joe Bonamassa may just be getting started.