In the days before COVID, there were certain things that just happened on a regular basis, making you feel like things were “normal.” One such event was Joe Bonamassa bringing the blues to Colorado’s infamous Red Rocks Amphitheater. Joe’s popularity has only grown with age, for the past seven consecutive years he has drawn huge crowds to the live music mecca in Denver. Last Monday, Joe performed the second of two nights at Red Rocks, breaking about a two year absence thanks to the pandemic. So it was only fitting that the show began with a backing track playing the “Welcome Back, Kotter” theme song. The message was not lost on the mature, chuckling crowd, who were so happy to be out under the stars again for a blistering display of the blues.
Bonamassa casually walked out on stage in his typical sunglasses and suit with a massive smile of appreciation, walking up to the mic and exclaiming, “I never thought I’d see this again!” While most of the setlist was a duplicate from the first night, he opted for a different opener on Monday’s show with the grooving romp, “Evil Mama” rather than “Oh Beautiful.”
Over the two nights, more than 16,000 in attendance shared Joe’s sentiment and joy over something that was once lost now being found again. Blues on the Rocks was back, and as always, he and his consummately professional band delivered the goods. While the air was thick with haze, thanks to the slow drift of smoke pouring in to Colorado from raging California wildfires, it was Joe’s set that turned up the heat on the night.
In the past, Bonamassa has had a couple powerhouse backup singers on the road with him. Tonight, the role was solely devoted to Jade McRae, who always adds more to the music than one would expect from a backup singer. While one vocalist can’t duplicate the sound of a trio, McRae danced and sang in a way that refused to be relegated to the background, giving beef to the choruses and a soulful counter timbre to Joe’s clean vocals. This tour did not feature a horn section, perhaps as part of an effort to be a bit more stripped down. It makes sense, given the tenuous venture back into live performances amidst persistent fears of the delta variant.
As usual, the keys were proficiently played by rock and roll hall of famer Reece Wynans, who played with Steve Ray Vaughan 1985-90, and who Joe said had performed at Red Rocks over 25 times. Wynans and Bonamassa traded lines a couple times in a memorable fashion, and when Joe’s amp unexpectedly went out at the beginning of “Lonely Boy.” Wynans improvised nonchalantly while backed by the band to entertain the crowd while techs furiously raced to bring the amp back to life. When the guitar tone was actually restored, he and Joe traded lines and it looked like Joe was having the most fun he’d had all night. It was a perfect analogy for the return of live music—when you go through a time of not being able to play, it’s all the sweeter when you can.
The drums were pounded with precision by studio stalwart Greg Morrow, who seems to get the call when Anton Fig isn’t playing with Bonamassa. Morrow was measured and meticulous with his time, providing the steady tempos for Joe to solo like crazy over. Bass player Michael Rhodes also provided the understated but rock solid bottom end on bass, doing very little to draw attention to himself, but providing the perfect bedrock for Bonamassa to blast over. And blast Joe did, playing a set that trended more towards rock than traditional, less aggressive blues. Much like Gary Moore (who he expertly covered with the third song of the night, “Midnight Blues,” Bonamassa brings a rock flair to his blues material. One of the highlights of the set was certainly “Pain and Sorrow,” an older tune of his that builds to a frenzy and featured an extended building electric solo section that wandered off into Hendrix-like territory.
The setlist featured five tracks from the latest studio record, “Royal Tea,” which is a solid collection of English-tinged blues rock. Sadly those tracks were not “Why Does It Take So Long to Say Goodbye” or “Beyond the Silence,” which are standouts on that record. Instead they played the slinky “Lookout Man!,” the Clapton-like “A Conversation With Alice,” the celebratory “I Didn’t Think She Would Do It,” the conflicting “When One Door Opens” and the overly cute “Lonely Boy.” That’s a large dose of new material, which demonstrates Joe’s confidence in his ability to generate fresh, relevant music.
Another clear contender for the strongest song of the evening was “The Ballad of John Henry,” which features a sludgy riff that’s on par with the best of Jimmy Page’s tunes. Jade McRae was given a chance to shine and she roared and soared in her sole opportunity to take the lead vocal spotlight in a section. Joe’s solo also featured the use of a Theramin to great visual and aural effect. It was a fantastic exclamation point to a solid set that left the audience roaring predictably for an encore. He eventually returned with an acoustic guitar and blazed through a solo performance of “Woke Up Dreaming” that was full of dynamics, going at times from barely audible to soft touches to frenetic speed strums showcasing Joe’s deft, diverse finger work.
The evening concluded with perhaps a bit stale choice of “Crossroads,” which certainly sits comfortably in his set but perhaps was a little too predictable and derivative compared to the original highs of “Pain and Sorrow,” “The Ballad of John Henry” and “Evil Mama.” Still, there was very little to find fault with on this beautiful evening, where, for at least about two hours, things were comfortably almost back to feeling normal.
Bonamassa once again delivered a guitar tour de force that was accessible, entertaining and polished. It was also a fantastic return to live music for this listener after way too many months of stage silence. Despite the pain and sorrow ushered in by the pandemic, Bonamassa ‘s blues feast proved to be an uplifting, celebratory display of life and the love of good music. And for that, myself, as well as the 16,000 that came out over two nights, were extremely grateful to be a part of it.
Evil Mama / Love Ain’t a Love Song / Midnight Blues (Gary Moore cover) / Lookout Man / . Jockey Full of Bourbon (Tom Waits cover) / I Didn’t Think She Would Do It / Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should / Wandering Earth / Pain and Sorrow / A Conversation With Alice / When One Door Opens / Lonely Boy / The Ballad of John Henry
Woke Up Dreaming / Crossroads (Eric Clapton cover)