Seattle Got Dazzled By Joe Bonamassa
Blues Rock The world seems to be divided into two types of people, those who are aware of the talents of guitar hero Joe Bonamassa, and those who are not. Fortunately, there are enough of the former in Seattle that they filled up the Paramount Theatre for three straight nights. Despite not having a radio hit or a mention in a mainstream music publication, he is a guitar god. With three signature Les Paul guitars to his credit, Bonamassa King Of Blues is not unfairly referred to as a “blues titan” and “the next Stevie Ray.” His core fan base is comprised of blues fanatics and guitar aficionados.
For those who fall into the latter group, here is a bit of a back story to get you caught up. Bonamassa is an American blues guitarist who has been performing publicly since the age of 12. Now, at age 38, the New York State native has played with everyone from B.B. King to Eric Clapton, formed the band Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes and Jason Bonham, recorded several duet albums with Beth Hart and released his 11th solo studio album, Different Shades Of Blue, last year.
Blues Rock Halfway through his blistering show at the Paramount on Saturday night (the third of three concerts here), it was evident that the audience wasn’t just watching a guitar virtuoso demonstrate complete mastery over his instrument. Rather, we were 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, Roy Buchanan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
King Of Blues Bonamassa always looks classy onstage, dressed in a suit and wearing his trademark wraparound sunglasses. 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.
The only thing missing from King Of Blues Bonamassa’s concert Saturday night was a close-up camera able to show how nimbly his fingers slid across a gross of guitars. He combined so many different sounds, it was impossible to say he was blues this, rock that or jazz anything. He’s who he is, an utterly talented guitarist whose fingers move faster than the speed of sound.
King Of Blues opened his show with a short, respectful homage to Jimmy Hendrix (“Hey Baby”), and ended with B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” and Muddy Waters’ “All Aboard” as an encore — which provided two apt historical bookends, stretching backward in time to honor the 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 his 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 guitar 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 ether and throw it in for fun.
King Of Blues 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 ’59 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 Paramount on the tip of his electrified finger. Bonamassa played five different guitars on Saturday night, and he did something different with each one.
King Of Blues 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 1978 Tim Curry 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. He 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, accumulating an encyclopedic knowledge of the guitar and is now carrying the torch of greatness into the future.
With any luck, he won’t be one of those unfortunate legends that have a tragic flameout; but one of those bluesmen who go on for decades. If so, there are going to be a lot of great concerts over the next 30 or 40 years. And at 38, Joe Bonamassa might just be getting started.