By Mike O’Cull
Everyone’s favorite guitar hero Joe Bonamassa took the world to school in last night’s pay-per-view live stream concert event beamed across the internet from the legendary venue Austin City Limits Live in Austin, Texas on April 1, 2021. The show was a special one-off blues/rock power trio performance that let Joe get back to his small band roots backed by iconic David Letterman Band drummer Anton Fig, bassist Steve Mackey, and vocalist/percussionist Jade MacRae. The live stream raised money for Joe’s Fueling Musicians Program that provides financial relief for touring artists shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic and unable to work. The extra-tasty setlist for the gig was curated by Bonamassa fans, which added a cool wrinkle to the night, and let Joe demonstrate much of his considerable artistry and depth. Rather than an all-out shred-fest, tonight’s live stream showed Bonamassa’s gifts for phrasing, riff development, songwriting, and vocals in addition to the high-velocity guitar chops we all know are there.
Bonamassa is perhaps the most-lauded guitarist of our current era and is known as one of the best of his generation. He has charted 24 Number One albums, been nominated for two Grammys, and has almost single-handedly returned blues/rock music to its rightful place in the mainstream. He’s also become a force for good in these pandemic times and his Fueling Musicians Program has raised and distributed more than $380,000 to over 230 touring artists to help them stay alive and afloat until they can hit the road safely once again. Tonight’s show was another big step in Bonamassa’s continued effort to pay his blessings forward to the music community that surrounds him.
From the first notes of the opening song “Oh Beautiful!,” it was plain to see that Joe had come out to play for keeps. His octave-pedal riffing over the cut’s heavy, syncopated groove showed a splash of Zeppelin’s slippery best and immediately got the crowd of 700 socially-distanced souls on his side. The hard funk/rock of “Love Ain’t A Love Song” followed directly and set the temperature on the stage to rising. Joe’s harmony vocal work with Jade MacRae in the choruses was tight and right and his guitar tones were huge and heavenly. The entire group played with the fire of musicians who had been deprived of their audience for far too long and sent out a bolt of electricity that crackled through the room.
Gary Moore’s “Midnight Blues” was slow, low, and dynamic in Bonamassa’s hands, vibing hard until he and the band blew it open. “Lookout, Man” from his recent Royal Tea album was an exquisite piece of drop-tuned light-and-heaviness that not only included the expected bursts of guitar genius but also featured the first of two of Joe’s performances on theremin, a touch-less electronic instrument often used by Jimmy Page. Joe and the players did a total blues-oriented reworking of Tom Wait’s “Jockey Full of Bourbon” that was highly melodic and a completely different creature than Waits’ avant-garde original. Bonamassa’s Les Paul tone was thick enough to slice and his double-stop licks were soulful and precise.
One of the set’s best moments was an absolutely blistering version of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s high-octane instrumental “Scuttle Buttin’.” Taking on Stevie’s signature instro rocker in his old Austin stomping grounds was a gutsy move and Joe even confessed to the crowd that it was the one song of the set he didn’t want to make a mistake on. Of course, he crushed it like the boss that he is on a gorgeous old Strat that had tone for days. He closed the main set with the deliciously heavy number “The Ballad of John Henry” which included another more extended theremin excursion along with more ripping guitar work. Bonamassa filled up the cavernous space allowed to him in the trio format with vision and skill, which is no small feat. The power trio has long been considered the true test of a guitarist’s mettle but Joe aces it easily with his unique combination of passion, fire, and grace. Honestly, he’s never sounded better.
The first encore was a solo acoustic blast through the track “Woke Up Dreaming” that was so intense that his guitar should have been reduced to splinters. By the time Fig, Mackey, and MacRae came back out and Bonamassa led them into Cream’s classic version of “Crossroads” to end the night, the energy in Austin went up for grabs and both band and fans were left exhausted but ready for more. Joe Bonamassa is a true guitar master in thought, word, and deed and the show tonight spoke volumes about the musician we’ve watched him grow to become. If you couldn’t catch it live, get the upcoming DVD and see it all go down. Still, you should have been there.
Joe Bonamassa Online