21st September 2013
Manchester turned out in force for Joe Bonamassa at the Arena and he repaid them with a dazzling display of guitar virtuosity which drew on a wide range of influences from across the range of blues styles, with an emphasis on music influenced by the classic British rock blues revivalists of the 1970’s.
The Arena was set up as an all seater and the show had very much the atmosphere of a recital. While several thousand people looked on in awestruck admiration at the outrageous bravura, nobody stood up and danced, despite the fact that up on stage Bonamassa was laying down some fine grooves. While it was a pleasure to sit and listen to a man on the top of his game putting a wide range of impressive looking guitars through their paces it would have been nice to see just a little bumping and grinding on the floor. Blues is the devil’s music after all, somebody should have let him in.
Dressed conservatively in blue suit and shades Bonamassa is not a flamboyant presence on the stage. He rocked gently while playing, occasionally leaned back or paced the stage and although there were tricks and displays of virtuosity enough for several shows there was very little of that aimless noodling at the bottom of the finger board which characterises the solos of many rock guitarists intent on showcasing their skills. Bonamassa has a real commitment to the music – the song comes first and everything follows from that.
Acting as his own opener he began with half a dozen acoustic blues numbers, either solo or with members of the band, including a dazzling cover of John Martyn’s Jelly Roll and a lovely version Athens to Athens with Tal Bergman on bongos and Derek Sherinian on upright piano that set the standard for the rest of the evening, which was to be electric in every sense of the word.
It was, of course, the promise of the electric set that drew the crowd and Bonamassa didn’t disappoint, opening with a blistering Dust Bowl followed by Story Of A Quarryman. During the course of this set there were many changes of guitar and style; Driving Towards daylight opened with the stage drenched in blue light and Bonamassa playing atmospheric licks that echoed round the arena before the band joined and the song uncoiled into a howl of anguish, Slow Train was a full power Led Zeppelin style rocker played very loud indeed while on Midnight Blues, a cover of the Gary Moore number, Bonamassa evoked not only the spirit of Moore himself but of that other British guitar legend Peter Green. Elsewhere there were touches reminiscent of the Altman brothers, Jeff Beck and Don Henley and show closer The Ballad Of John Henry was embellished with some fine flamenco.
Bonamassa was generous with the spotlight on stage. Both Bergman and Sherinian got spots for extended solos, Sherinian summoning up the spirit of prog with his swirling organ motifs. The band was completed by bass maestro Carmine Rojas. Bonamassa also gave up the spotlight for young guitarist Eilidh McKellar who showed that there are young blues guitarists in the UK who could be snapping at the master’s heels in a few years time.
After nearly two and a half hours the show closed with crowd favourites Sloe Gin and John Henry – a fitting close to a fine display of virtuoso playing. Rumour has it that Bonomassa’s next album is going to have a lot more emphasis on blues and less on rock and that will make for an interesting listen but tonight’s show left the crowd happy and there are few people in the world today who can play guitar the way Joe Bonomassa can. Fantastic.