Joe Bonamassa: 24 October 2009 – Chicago

Joe Bonamassa

If you want your son to become a nuclear physicist don’t play him concert videos of Eric Clapton and for Heaven’s sake don’t succumb to that gleam in his eye when he spots the shimmering Les Paul in your local music store. By all means, shove the mitt and t-ball gear in his backpack on the way to kindergarten or you may end up parenting the likes of an obsessive musical prodigy like blues-rock vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Joe Bonamassa.

Bonamassa has not only garnered the acclaim of those twenty and thirty something fans that fuel the economy’s date-night influenza, he’s even seduced their parents. Here is what one dedicated fan had to say about this top-notch performer. “This was my third time seeing Joe since being introduced to his music by my twenty-three year old son. Each show has been better that the last and the Vic show was beyond awesome.”

Joe has really developed into a terrific showman along with his enormous talent. Sitting in the front row with my family, getting the set-list from the band and shaking Joe’s hand after the encore was just icing on the cake. “Delicious”, said Scott Wendell of the Chicago area. Wendell also said that he’s never paid to see an artist three times in over thirty-seven years of concerts. After tonight’s performance, I get it.

Bonamassa has lost weight and trimmed his hippie hair since his Chicago hiatus. After thick applause, he launched into the tune “The Ballad of John Henry – Spike Driver Blues” from the ’09 album of the same name and immediately drove the crowd into an enthusiastic frenzy. This song was inspired by the performer’s growing awareness of America’s increasingly mute response to its working class. He uses the legendary John Henry as a metaphor for hard-work.

Bonamassa holds the stage well. Sometimes he stands absolutely still for a moment holding up his Les Paul like the Statue of Liberty gripping her illuminated torch. Lights swirl around him and boxy patterns intermittently appear on the stage floor. This is my first time seeing him live and I’m expecting some shuffles, virtuosity and, well, anything more is simply Delta gravy. This 32 year old immediately demonstrates high-energy. But, who is he really? I’m waiting to see if he sneers like Jagger, bends like Clapton or shreds like Vaughan.

He poses randomly after the more riveting songs and smirks at the crowd. He’s a little pale for an “Angelino”, but his skin is luminous set against his close-cropped dirty-blonde hair and over-sized shades. Maybe the smirk signifies that fragile little boy coming out for our approval or maybe it’s the satisfaction of knowing that the crowd is at his bluesiest beck and call. In any event, it’s unarguably a well-deserved smirk.

His touring band consists of the dynamic Carmine Rojas (bass), Rick Melick (keys) and Bogie Bowles (drums). Rojas, who has been Rod Stewart’s bass player, is a big fan of Motown, Salsa and British Rock and he maintains an easy-going likeable persona throughout the never-ending stream of chord and tempo changes that the performance mandated.

Melick was careful not to compete with Bonamassa’s sonar moments. Instead, the melodic keyboard lines successfully drifted from dreamy to rough and back again. Bowles performed like a demon; laying back then cracking the whip on numbers such as “Lonesome Road Blues” and “Just Got Paid”.

Bonamassa opened for B.B. King at age eleven. He poured his childhood passions into the recordings of John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher and Cream. He seems a little like a stunned, overjoyed kid at times judging by some gushing smiles and a voice that cracks with spontaneous emotion. Tonight, there’s undeniable warmth in the room. Wendell is not the only fan who has eagerly anticipated tonight’s show. Bonamassa says on his new DVD release, Live from Royal Albert Hall, “I don’t want a real job. I want to play guitar.”

The repertoire is diverse this evening. As he wails commentary about “sinners and saints” and utters a bewildered line about how “She left me standing here” in a scratchy, gripping vocal, set against a throbbingly emotive bassline and scorching keyboards, he and his guitar warp-speed through a soul-crushing solo. There are many nods to heartache tonight and when he plays “If Heartaches were Nickels” and milks the grit from the coveted line “If heartaches were nickels I might be the richest fool alive”. no one can stand to hear his philosophies end.

The dreamy and ethereal “Sloe Gin” where Bonamassa’s beautiful but hypnotic guitar work pedal- point punctuates the raw horrors of loneliness and creates stillness in the packed room. The twelve- bar- blues shuffle “Your Funeral and My Trial” provides a sharp contrast to “Happier Times” which is tinged with a bittersweet bite and fluidly harbors a folk sensibility. Bonamassa puts as much feeling into covers like Blind Faith’s “Had To Cry Today” and ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” as he does into his original material.

The heartache continues when he rises above “The Great Flood”, bending notes fluidly and majestically in this immensely evocative anthem. Again, the message is simple: “It’s been too long since I said I love you” but the delivery is torrid and rips through our gut like a Thanksgiving meal. Is it deliberate when he looks up at the heavens between passages? Bonamassa plays his rock-blues aorta out and you could swear the Almighty is listening intently and when he moans, “I’ve been suffering all my life” you wish Moses would part the seas and just let the man walk on water already.

The faces in this balcony express awe and I hear fans whisper to each other and point out moments not to be missed. Though no one dares to sing along, you can see fans mouth much-loved lyrics. “Mountain Time” features a quasi-raga patter and spellbindingly hushed vocal tones. Bonamassa proves he can touch and move us even outside of the pigeon-holed Rubik’s cube that rock-blues artists often find themselves boxed into.

In “Ball Peen Hammer”, an acoustic ballad, he plays dynamically varied melodic figures, his fingers trickle over the fret board with a “come-hither” charm. Repeating the self-defeating phrase “I can’t stand it”, his anguish pours through the silent room.

The stand-out of the evening was the mid-set “Woke Up Dreaming” with Bonamassa alone on stage with his acoustic. The line, “I woke up dreaming I was gonna die” is woven meticulously like houndstooth on a Scottish kilt as Bonamassa played phenomenal lightening quick hammer on after hammer on while singing in a rasp, and several cadence points are sprinkled with staccato jazz chords.

Like those around me I’m pinned to my chair. It’s just Joe and an acoustic and I’m astonished. In fact, I’ve never heard anything like it. Blues? Natch. Rock? Uh-huh. But this…Whazzup? The whir of styles, the constant cajole of tempo, the merciless trail of blues notes that meld into barre chords than bleed into breathtaking harmonics and those jostling jazz chords that show up like sacred painted cows at a crowded New Delhi thoroughfare are powerful and unexpected, but at the same time delightful and appreciated.

Excitement mounts as he segues into a gorgeous semi-classical section that hints at Segovia-inflected ‘Malagueña’. My imagination wanders back to a club I frequented in my youth which was built into a Madrid cave where dancers pounded the tables with harshly, clicking heals. But, I’m jolted back to the Vic as Bonamassa soars and swelters into raunchy rockabilly and then abruptly, but luxuriously, embraces a lush twelve-bar blues. Between each section he smirks again and teases us. Now the ball’s in our court. We can’t stand it because no one wants this song to end. No one wants this night to end.

Instead, we want to stay here and text our husbands and wives and sleeping children. “Throw the mitt in the recycling bin.” “Who cares about little-league?” “Why the heck can’t my kid play like that?”