Listening to an evening Joe Bonamassa’s guitar exploits is akin to sampling every greasy delicacy at a barbeque joint. Some of the tastes are familiar and flavorful enough to where you might overindulge. But the classier establishments always manage a variation of the form that is less expected but equally tasty.
That was essentially the menu served up last night at Rupp Arena before a crowd of 1,600 in the venue’s half-house seating configuration. The 2 ½ performance was divided evenly between electric blues adventures that often morphed into towering guitar rock pageantry and an acoustic set full of surprise and stylistic invention.
The former, of course, is what Bonamassa has established much of his reputation on. The electric set made use of varying quantities of the blues as the basis of a taut guitar sound that was let loose through a series of extended solos.
Sometimes the blues ran the roost, as in Blues Deluxe, a tune originated in 1968 on Jeff Beck’s classic Truth album. As with the original, last night’s version was presented as a study in contrasts – specifically, a lyricism rooted in slows blues tradition but with vocals distinguished by volume and urgency. Bonamassa handled all of it capably. Other songs, like the set opening original Dust Bowl, operated from a more progressive base, as shown by long, sinewy melodies and fusion-style interplay that brought Eric Johnson’s early playing to mind.
There were a few instances during the electric set when some editing would have helped. Lengthy solos during The Ballad of John Henry and Sloe Gin, muscular as they were, grew static after several minutes, although both segments were huge hits with the audience. More inviting, simply because it took Bonamassa out of guitarslinger mode, was Django, an instrumental presented as a sparse but spacious duet with keyboardist Derek Sherinian.
The opening acoustic set was a complete show stealer. Instead of a raw and rustic display of primal blues, Bonamassa threw open the stylistic gates for a wildly broad repertoire (Bad Company’s Seagull, Tom Waits’ Jockey Full of Bourbon and Chris Whitley’s truly fearsome Ball Peen Hammer) with a band that teamed Irish banjoist/fidder Gerry O’Connor and Swiss nyckelharpa player Mats Wester with Sherinian and the great Los Angeles pop percussionist Lenny Castro.
The acoustic set was orderly – nine songs played on nine guitars situated onstage in a semi-circle around Bonamassa – but wonderfully expansive in terms of sounds and source material. Among the many highlights was Jelly Roll, a work by the late and often underappreciated British guitarist John Martyn that sounded like a slab of Celtic boogie. It was the type of fun that turned this blues-based performance into a merry world party.