It wasn’t until the halfway point of his 2 ¼ hour guitar manifesto last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts that Joe Bonamassa paused long enough to chat with the near capacity crowd.
There was business to tend to at this juncture, the concert’s only substantial break. The guitarist thanked the audience, his crew and his band of heavy hitters (which included longtime CBS Orchestra drummer Anton Fig, Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans, heralded Nashville bassist Michael Rhodes and former Tower of Power trumpeter Lee Thornberg). But before any of that, there was some justifiable gloating to do over the announcement earlier in the day that Bonamassa’s newest recording, “Live at the Greek Theatre,” had received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album. In giving the news a homey spin, Bonamassa acknowledged he learned of the honor not through the Recording Academy that oversees the Grammys, but via a message from his mother.
Outside of that little chat, Bonamassa was all business, wielding a guitar sound born out of the blues but fortified with an electric stamina that generously and frequently borrowed from rock ‘n’ roll. The show opening “This Train” began a five song selection of original compositions off of “Blues of Desperation,” a studio album released earlier this year. While some of these works called upon colors from Bonamassa’s seven-member band (a barrelhouse piano run by Wynans here, a Southern fried horn riff from Thornberg and saxophonist Paulie Cerra there), the music was driven by heavy, humid guitar grooves and one piledriver Bonamassa guitar solo after another.
The mood didn’t noticeably lighten until the show began veering into the “Three Kings” repertoire of “Live at the Greek Theatre” – specifically, songs popularized by guitarists Freddie King, Albert King and B.B, King. There was still a weight to Bonamassa’s treatment of these tunes, including a toughened version of “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” a Crusaders-penned song B.B. King cut with a jazzy vibe in 1978. Bonamassa had none of that last night. His version let the guitars roar (both in his leads and in solid, propulsive rhythmic playing) before Thornberg and Cerra capped a pronounced party mood with brief but boisterous horn solos.
There were also a few detours into dynamics, as in the way a quartet version of Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” veered from its expected aural thunder to a guitar solo of surprising sparseness and delicacy. But the full, tireless spirit guiding this performance was best showcased by an encore finale of “Hummingbird” that served as a double tribute. The song was popularized by B.B. King (who died last year) and written by Leon Russell (who died last month). Though still abounding with gusto, the work offered a more balanced vocal and ensemble blend, allowing Bonamassa to lighten ever so lightly his voluminous guitar sound. One had to imagine that making room to pay homage to two legends simultaneously demanded that.