Widely regarding as the most successful blues-rock exponent of our generation, there’s very little Joe Bonamassa hasn’t accomplished yet during an illustrious career spanning over three decades. With more No. 1 blues albums than anyone else in history, Bonamassa is not only known for his remarkable musical achievements and pioneering style, or for almost single-handedly redefining the blues-rock genre and bringing it into the mainstream, but also for his exhilarating live performances. And every soul in attendance at the Hard Rock Live at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood this past Sunday could categorically attest to that.
The audience was simmering with excitement as the venue sank into complete darkness around at 8:10 PM, but we didn’t have to wait much longer. Suddenly an array of multicolored lights started to dance as the sharp-dressed bluesman and his band broke the silence, opening the proverbial musical gates with an incendiary, infectious and harmonious rendition of “Evil Mama,” serving as a faultless appetizer to get the crowd amped up. Without a minute to spare, they moved on to “Love Ain’t a Love Song,” kicking into high gear with Joe’s soulful and compelling voice driving the tune, accompanied by Jade MacRae’s melodious backing vocals and a myriad of mesmerizing guitar pyrotechnics from the repertoire of someone who’s guitar is an extension of his very soul.
Bonamassa didn’t address the audience until several other songs have been already performed, with highlights including the slower burner of “Midnight Blues”, a Gary Moore original beautifully performed with his gold top Les Paul; the raw, bass-driven, bluesy and groovy “Lookout Man!”, and a supercharged, hard -rocking version of “Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should” where the laser-sharp wailing guitar solo felt almost terrifying in its vibrance and accuracy, wonderfully paired with a frenzy organ section that got the entire audience jumping on their feet and offering the band an standing ovation.
When the time came to introduce the band, Bonamassa removed his sempiternal shades and got a little more conversational: “Every once in a while, we play a show where we don’t have to care about tomorrow, because there’s no tomorrow, and today is that night!” he joked, referring to the show being the last of the tour. “So tonight, I don’t need to care about my voice, or about my hands, so you are gonna get it all… I can eat 2 pounds of cake after this if I want, because this is it!” he continued as the audience cheered, clapped and laughed.
He proceeded to present his second-to-none band-mates: Reese Wynans was on keyboards, formerly in Double Trouble with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Michael Rhodes on bass who has played with practically everyone in Nashville and beyond from Johnny Cash to Elton John, Greg Morrow on drums – he tours with Bob Seger and won 2008’s and 2015’s Studio Recording Award for Drummer of the Year with the Academy of Country Music, and the magical and divine background voices were courtesy of Jade MacRae and Juanita Tippins. While the spotlight was logically on Joe it’s important to acknowledge the masterful musicianship of these musicians, who are amongst of the best in the business, and whose chops were in abundant display throughout the evening, rounding up the goosebumps-inducing experience.
Joe has said many times he’s not a guitar player, but an entertainer, and he certainly enthralled the audience with his otherworldly abilities and naturally pleasurable persona. One of my favorite’s things about his guitar playing style is that he focuses more on phrasing and feeling than he does about stunning people with how fast he could play, and that was undeniably palpable while amidst a the set-list closer, a lengthy version of “The Ballad of John Henry” when he phrased quieter and quieter to see how much lower he could go without losing the instrument’s sound, bringing it back up to a thunderous, roof-rattling wave, and ending in a piercing single-note howl that suspended time and space at the tip of his fingers.
With the entire venue claiming for more, Joe reappeared alone to an acoustic at breakneck speed in a raucous version of “Woke Up Dreaming” that had the audience shouting and howling: one man exploring the bounds of what a single instrument can do. In a very suitable conclusion, the band joined Bonamassa for an extended rendition of the fan-favorite “Sloe Gin” with a splendid, gut-wrenching being full of both technique and feeling, wrapped by his smooth and smoky baritone’s voice. The lines “I’m so damn lonely/and I feel like I’m gonna die” resonated from the deepest, darkest roots of the blues, and just right there a thought hit me like a ton of bricks: I wasn’t standing there just watching another guitar virtuoso confirming inclusive control over his six-strings instrument. No. Instead I was beholding a true artist who continues to prove he’s worth of etching his name in history alongside any other of the blues legends who preceded him.
Evil Mama / Love Ain’t a Love Song / Midnight Blues (Gary Moore cover) / The Heart That Never Waits / Lookout Man! / I Didn’t Think She Would Do It / Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should / Django / Pain and Sorrow / Notches / When One Door Opens / Royal Tea / Lonely Boy / The Ballad of John Henry
Woke Up Dreaming / Sloe Gin (Tim Curry cover)