Joe Bonamassa at Red Rocks has become a bit of a staple of my summer concert schedule. I’ve been fortunate to see the long-running bluesman play a number of tours at this legendary venue, and I’ve never left without being thoroughly impressed and entertained. The most recent stop at Red Rocks last August, however, I had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend. And while a part of me wondered if I might have missed something special, I now know the answer. It was a superb show. And now anyone can experience it, thanks to this new live audio/visual release called “Tales of Time,” now available on CD/DVD, CD/BR, vinyl, and other digital formats.
As I’ve stated in previous reviews of Joe’s studio records, one of the biggest challenges I have as a listener is for the material to not start to sound too “samey.” The nature of the blues allows for a variety of shades, but not a change of color. The blues are always blue. So, I wondered what might be unique about this particular outing to elevate it from Joe’s previous tours, and as this release documents, there are a couple of things that made this tour stand out. The first is the material. “Tales of Time” predominantly features live versions of several tracks from his most recent studio album, “Time Clocks.” In my review of that record, I pointed out that it was one of the most mature recordings of his career, landing a little more in the rock territory and featuring some great songs that had lasting power in his catalog.
I have a love/hate relationship with live albums. Sometimes they’re simply sloppier, worse sounding versions of the studio performances. On the other hand, sometimes they ratchet the energy and add some raw power that makes a studio version sound neutered. UFO’s “Strangers in the Night” is a good example of a live record that makes the studio versions of those songs almost un-listenable to me, because the production holds the energy back. Bonamassa has been playing and recording live shows for a very long time, so he’s honed the craft and I’m happy to say that the live versions of the songs from “Time Clocks” are enhanced by the live energy and performers on stage.
Some elements are consistent to previous tours. For example, Joe’s backup singers are an integral part of his show and the remarkable trio of Jade MacRae, Danni DeAndrea and Mahalia Barnes deliver a powerful punch of vocals support while swaying and shimmying in time in a manner that makes it hard to look away. As always, they’re excellent here. Joe continues to sport the shades and wear a loud, suit-like get-up that demands attention, though he’s leaning a little more cowboy than businessman in this tour’s wardrobe. Once again, the legendary keys player Reese Wynans, who worked with bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughn up until his passing, is here for another run providing his steady organ, piano and synth chops with professional precision.
As far as the rest of the band goes, however, some changes have taken place. The recently deceased bass stalwart Michael Rhodes’ spot has been taken up by Calvin Turner, who favors being steady over showy, much like his predecessor. The drum stool is now being filled by Lemar Carter, who brings a little extra oomph to the percussion in the live renditions of the songs. And lastly, Joe has a second guitarist providing support with Josh Smith, who is a bit of a Ferrari being kept in the garage in his role here, but he sure seems to be having a good time.
Another welcome change is the addition of a more developed stage production, with large video screens. The visuals add an entertaining aesthetic to the performance without taking away from the performers on stage. The grandiosity of the venue is creatively showcased with some tasteful drone shots interspersed amongst a lot of different camera angles, including from back behind the band. For someone who is unfamiliar either with Red Rocks as a venue or Joe Bonamassa as a guitar player, this is a great introductory package to both.
“Notches” opens with a swagger that sets the stage for a night of guitar in the spotlight. “The Heart That Never Waits” strolls along and benefits from an explosive solo that then breaks down to some delicate soft playing that creates some great tension before finally building and breaking loose again. It’s nice to see Joe playing in a couple different gears and the band moving lock-step with him. “Curtain Call” unfolds with some “Kashmir”-like Indian vibes. Pretty much every Bonamassa song is a vehicle for Joe’s soloing, but in this track, he takes the spotlight on a Theramin-like device that provides the spacey wooshes used so effectively in his live version of “Who Killed John Henry” performed previously with Black Country Communion. The band is punchy while Josh Smith concludes the song with a contrasty solo that’s sadly a bit too low in the mix.
“Mind’s Eye” is a melancholy change of pace that showcases just how clean the band sounds live, and the steady growth of Joe’s confidence as a vocalist. The backup singers also add a layer of slick sophistication to this solid loner tune, and Joe’s lead solo is a tasty bridge to a big chorus that captivates, even while toning things down.
By now a pattern has been established. Song by song, Joe has switched out guitars, playing everything from a Telecaster, to a Les Paul, to a flying V to add some subtle tone varieties. He’s known to be a massive collector so the show gives him a chance to show off his collection a bit. “Questions and Answers” feels like a fiery, older blues tune that he seems to really enjoy playing, and the band seems to reflect back his joy. Reece takes a tasteful piano solo and the slinky tune benefits from Carter’s pocket and drive.
“The Loyal Kind” is one of the finer moments from “Time Clocks,” and this live rendition really shines. The laid-back verses and raucous choruses make it a fun ride that provides another chance for the ladies to shine with great harmony. Joe’s commanding solo sways and soars and this song and performance are a good encapsulation of his style. Bonamassa breaks out a red Stratocaster for “Known Unknowns,” which is the closing song from the studio record. The song feels like it could have been a Bonnie Raitt hit and it benefits from the unique Strat tone on his solo.
“Time Clocks” hints at country with its Vince Gill-like verse and Gospel-sounding chorus. The tune provides some diversity and climaxes to a grandiose ending with multiple solo sections that feel like we’re nearing the end of the show. On the video, the next track is the rollicking “Evil Mama” that features a great bass line that propels the tune forward. It’s a feel-good tune from the “Redemption” record that seems to let everyone burn off some steam and shine collectively. Joe and Reece both smolder on their solos and bring the house to its feet, making a definitive statement that this is tight, professional unit enjoying itself immensely.
The video includes about five more songs than the CD, including Joe’s take on Gary Moore’s “Midnight Blues,” and the strategically selected show-closer, “Mountain Time,” which Joe said he got a chance 20 years earlier write with Will Jennings. The drawn-out epic travels through a variety of paces, with the video of a flying bird being entirely complimentary as the song climbs to a soaring ending.
Before playing “Mountain Time,” Joe shared that he learned the importance of living one’s life to the fullest from Jennings. Judging by the shows he’s performed at Red Rocks over the years, one would be hard pressed to argue that he isn’t doing just that.
Released By: J&R Adventures
Released On: April 14th, 2023
Genre: Blues Rock
“Tales Of Time” track listing:
2. The Heart That Never Waits
3. Curtain Call
4. Mind’s Eye
5. Questions And Answers
6. The Loyal Kind
7. Known Unknowns
8. Time Clocks
9. Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should
10. Evil Mama
“Tales Of Time” DVD/Blu-ray:
* Dawn Of Time (Intro)
* The Heart That Never Waits
* Curtain Call
* Mind’s Eye
* Questions And Answers
* The Loyal Kind
* Known Unknowns
* Time Clocks
* Evil Mama
* Midnight Blues
* I Didn’t Think She Would Do It
* Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should
* Mountain Time
* Times Tail (Credits)
* Dust Bowl
* Band Intros
* The Ballad Of John Henry
“Tales of Time” is a great encapsulation of who the three-time GRAMMY-nominated guitarist Joe Bonamassa has become as a performer. It looks and sounds splendidly. If you’ve held off on exploring his music, there’s no better time and vehicle to jump on in than this live release.